This is a translation of an opinion article (originally in Basque). Published 20 Feb 2021:

To ensure societal well-being, institutions need to help ecosystem service stewards give a new life to forests. And promptly.

We are witnessing two unusual phenomena in the landscape of the [Spanish side of the Basque region]. On one hand, the pinus insignis [a widely planted non-native tree], those trees that raise so much hate and love, are leaving. Two fungi are starving them to death in just few years, triggering gloomy views: dead trees, trunks broken in half and leaves that shined in a weird red colour before falling long ago. It’s a tornado with little cure. This scene can be seen on the way to the Adarra mountain, for example.

On the other hand, in the face of this tragedy, many landowners are quickly planting another non-native species. Eucalyptus, while a good component in its native Australian ecosystems, in the Cantabrian range is not a friend of land and water. The bare soil of eucalyptus plantations is just the tip of the iceberg; an indicator of a desert of biodiversity.

Both phenomena are steadfast compared to the usual rhythm of forests. Understandably, landowners need to clean up the sick or dead pine trees, which had been planted for sale, and do something quickly to save this collapsing investment. As a result, pines will be replaced by another seemingly profitable tree species, which grow quickly and are supposed to sell easily. Welcome eucalyptus. Goodbye, a unique opportunity to recover native species and mixed forests.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A society looking to the next generation needs innovative natural resources governance. For example, by providing support and subsidies to ecosystem stewards for protecting the services provided by native forests. Payments for ecosystem services have been implemented in several developing countries (Costa Rica, Mexico) and are being considered in European regions.

The simplest way is to pay for the carbon captured by trees, as driven by climate change policies. But high-diversity forests bring many other ecosystem services, such as water quality regulation, resilience to pests, and flood and landslide prevention.

Following this model, payments would be provided in exchange for growing and ensuring the long-term survival of native species: beeches, oaks, various components of mixed forests, and those providing non-timber forest products, to contribute to the bioeconomy. How much? Amounts comparable to private profits obtained with eucalyptus [the opportunity cost]. Why? Because native forests might not yield much private benefit, but they bring tremendous public benefit that is measured outside the market. This approach can also create jobs, green ones indeed, and even be part of the digitalisation trend, because this model requires effective monitoring.

It wouldn’t be the first time [this society has] saved trees. For instance, among the dead pines in the Adarra mountain, native holly trees are shining, which were once on the verge of extinction in this region. Institutional awareness-raising campaigns—and everyone’s new behaviour—saved them. If we want, we can revitalize the forests.

In contrast to some other proposals for post-pandemic economic recovery, reviving the forests would require relatively little funding, and yet be of great benefit to society, to those who enhance their mental well-being in nature, who care about children’s future, who value the landscape and live of tourism, who enjoy quality air and water, to everyone.

This chance could be one-in-a-generation: like waves for surfing, action needs to be taken now—in the coming months [before pines are replaced with eucalyptus]—or who knows if the opportunity will emerge again.