To ensure the long-term survival of its most valuable and threatened habitats, the European Union (EU) is committing its Member States to develop a network of protected areas. Flanders (northern Belgium) is a highly urbanised region, where natural environments are scarce. Policy-makers are converting existing forest plantations (mostly former coniferous plantations) into natural areas to comply with the EU requirements about nature restoration and satisfy the growing demand for recreation and amenity spaces.
The conversion of forest plantations into higher value nature, however, sometimes meets public opposition because it often involves clearcuts and landscape modification. Regional planning authorities are looking for case studies demonstrating which type of nature restoration is valued and thus supported by citizens. Past valuation studies show that personal, site-specific and spatial characteristics influence preferences. However, little is known about the relative importance of such factors.
We conduct a discrete choice experiment to investigate preferences for nature restoration scenarios that involve forest conversion. A mixed logit and a latent class model are estimated and the influence of socio-demographic characteristics is explored. Willingness-to-pay (WTP) estimates are elicited. Though people generally prefer the forest habitat type, our results suggest that public support exists for converting forest plantations if this contributes to increasing landscape diversity and species richness. Based on our findings, we recommend small scale cuts. This in order to gently open the landscape, assist the natural regeneration process and help current species adapt to that landscape modification.