What drives the future supply of regulating ecosystem services in a mountain forest landscape?
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Forest ecosystems provide a wide variety of ecosystem services to society. In harsh mountain environments, the regulating services of forests are of particular importance. Managing mountain forests for regulating services is a cost- and labor intensive endeavor. Yet, also unmanaged forests regulate the environment. In the context of evidence-based decision making it is thus important to scrutinize if current management recommendations improve the supply of regulating ecosystem services over unmanaged development trajectories. A further issue complicating decision making in the context of regulating ecosystem services is their high sensitivity to climate change. Climate-mediated increases in natural disturbances, for instance, could strongly reduce the supply of regulating services from forests in the future. Given the profound environmental changes expected for the coming decades it remains unclear whether forest management will still be able to significantly control the future trajectories of mountain forest development, or whether the management effect will be superseded by a much stronger climate and disturbance effect. Here, our objectives were (i) to quantify the future regulating service supply from a 6456 ha landscape in the Stubai valley in Tyrol, Austria, and (ii) to assess the relative importance of management, climate, and natural disturbances on the future supply of regulating ecosystem services. We focused our analysis on climate regulation, water regulation, and erosion regulation, and used the landscape simulation model iLand to quantify their development under different climate scenarios and management strategies. Our results show that unmanaged forests are efficient in providing regulating ecosystem services. Both climate regulation and erosion regulation were higher in unmanaged systems compared to managed systems, while water regulation was slightly enhanced by management. Overall, direct effects of climate change had a stronger influence on the future supply of regulating services than management and natural disturbances. The ability of management to control ecosystem service supply decreased sharply with the severity of future climate change. This finding highlights that forest management could be severely stymied in the future if climate change continues to proceed at its current rate. An improved quantitative understanding of the drivers of future ecosystem service supply is needed to more effectively combine targeted management efforts and natural ecosystem dynamics towards sustaining the benefits society derives from forests in a rapidly changing world.