Del Campo, A.D., Segura-Orenga, G., Bautista, I., Ceacero, C.J. González-Sanchis, M., Molina, A.J., Hermoso, J., 2021. Assessing reforestation failure at the project scale: The margin for technical improvement under harsh conditions. A case study in a Mediterranean Dryland. Science of The Total Environment, 796, 148952.
Poor reforestation outcomes imply failure to fulfill program goals and tend to erode institutional willpower and political momentum towards reforestation efforts, affecting both public and private support. However, program improvement in real reforestation projects is challenging, due to the conjunction of many different variables that mutually interact and feed back on each other inextricably. This study develops a comprehensive assessment framework for reforestation programs, for which technical and environmental information is gathered and related to indicators of performance in both the short- and mid-term. This assessment, tested on a case study, aimed to provide reliable end-results for survival and growth, revealed pitfalls in successful plantation establishment and taught us how to improve plantation performance and what the margin for this improvement was. The selected project was carried out on harsh site conditions, with different species, cultivation treatments and contractors, and was affected by the driest year on record. Plantation mortality was high and increased progressively over time, particularly in the short-term when the rate was 53% (rising to 83% after ten years), showing high variation between sites and species (Pinus pinaster and Quercus faginea died more than 94% after ten years while Junipus phoenicea only 40%). All the hardwoods and the juniper showed lower growth rate after ten years (average stem volume < 40 cm3) than pines (stem volume > 470 cm3). Technical variables (project planning and execution) had a relatively important impact on plantation performance in the first two years (11–29%), but decreased with time, whilst environmental variables (site and meteorological) were more important ten years after planting (>50%). In the short-term, soil moisture and meteorology during the planting season were identified as key factors that triggered the effects of both technical decisions (planting date and planting technique) and other environmental variables on performance. In the design phase, some decisions related to zoning, species selection and cultural treatments were related to poor performance. The results provide practical information and guidelines about all potential drivers of plantation performance and contribute to identify those aspects more related to success of forest restoration in Mediterranean drylands.