Monitoring natural forest reserves in Switzerland

The federal government's "Forest Biodiversity" strategy, under which natural forest reserves are promoted, has been in place since the Federal Law on Forests was revised in 1991. We offer scientific support for this development through the "Research and effectiveness controlling in Swiss forest reserves" partnership project of the WSL, ETH and FOEN. It has been part of the Confederation's environmental monitoring programme since 2017.

The Swiss forest has been exploited intensively for centuries. The surviving remains of the old-growth forest are small. Through its "Forest Biodiversity" strategy, the Confederation supports the creation of natural forest reserves. These areas are expected to become similar to old-growth forests over decades.

At the end of 2018, the natural forest reserves covered 46,199 hectares, which corresponds to 3.5% of the forested area in Switzerland. There are also forest reserves in which additional nature conservation objectives are pursued on sub-areas, such as the promotion of certain species; these are referred to as complex forest reserves.

The Confederation is interested in learning about the effectiveness of its reserve policy. What does forest development look like in natural forest reserves? Are there actually differences to managed forests, and if so, what are they? For scientists, natural forest reserves are unique open-air laboratories in which they can study forest development and biodiversity.

Eighty years of natural forest research

We have been researching the forest dynamics in reserves for some 80 years, initially in the Swiss National Park, and since 2000 also in the Sihlwald and the Carpathian regions of Ukraine. For its part, ETH Zurich has been studying forest development in 39 Swiss natural forest reserves since 1948.

Since 2006, we have joined forces with the the ETH and FOEN in the long-term research project "Monitoring Swiss Natural Reserves". As part of this project, a standardised, practicable method has been developed for a Swiss natural forest monitoring system. A large area of the ETH reserves is still under observation; a portion has been discontinued in order to enable incorporating additional reserves to the observation programme, which will complement it appropriately. There are now 49 reserves under observation which cover the vegetation types throughout Switzerland.

The objectives of the research project are:

1.      Scientific monitoring of forest development in a network of natural forest reserves

2.      Evaluate the collected data and publicate the findings

3.      Provide natural forest indicators for the environmental monitoring programmes of the Confederation


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