Mr. Luis Alfonso Gil Sánchez

Medalla nº XXVII


Born in Madrid (1951), is graduated in Biological Sciences (Madrid Complutense University, 1977) and Forest Engineering (Polytechnic University of Madrid, 1979). In 1983 he obtained a Ph.D. in Forest Engineering and is a Professor of the ETS of Montes, Forestry and Natural Environment Engineering since 2002. In 2006 he created and since then directed the UPM Research Group: “Natural Systems and Forestry History”. He is member of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2008) where he was General Secretary (2011-2015).


He previously taught “Anatomy and Plant Physiology” to Forest Engineers and currently teaches the subjects; “Forest Genetics" to Bachelor students, "History, Improvement and Conservation of Forest Genetic Resources" to Master students, and "Forest Production" to Biotechnology students.


He worked as predoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow (1979), at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle of Paris (1979) and at the National Agronomic Institute of Paris-Grignon (1980). He wrote his doctoral thesis at the Spanish National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) in the field of forest entomology focusing on the faunistic study of a group of beetles linked to the coniferous forests of the Iberian Peninsula. Since 1983 he worked at the ETS of Forestry Engineers (UPM), developing studies on the anatomy, physiology and genetics of the main forest species of the Iberian and Macaronesian forests.


His first line of research was the characterization of intraspecific variability in Pinus and Quercus, in order to explain the different adaptations to the environment of forest species of extended area of distribution. This activity had not been previously investigated extensively and is an integral part of the reforestation program that selects the appropriate seed-source to each location, as well as the best quality of the plant material that is implanted. His scientific and technical activity focuses on the improvement and conservation of forest genetic resources (where there is little knowledge in Spain), and in the study of the dynamics of our forests against natural disasters.


He has studied the different strategies used when pine trees with or without serotinous cones are confronted with crown or ground fires and the frequency of natural fires. In the case of the Canary Island pine, it was shown that regrowth (exclusive in this pine), is an adaptation to volcanism not to the fire, and the presence of serotinous cones is a primitive character due to the dispersion of the species between islands of archipelago after a volcanic event.


In his work, special attention has been placed on examining marginal populations with reduced demography of pines, oaks, beech and elms, as well as demonstrating the local and regional extinction of Pine trees, typical species in olden times of our “steep” mountains (“steep” in this sense refers to “empinado” which means“ with pine forests” in Spanish). He has recovered the extinct Pinus uncinata in the Cantabrian Mountains; has studied the spontaneous character of P. sylvestris in the sand dunes of the Duero Basin, the presence of Quercus suber in the Balearic Islands and cork oaks in Minorca with Tyrrhenian origin. We also found in Minorca P. pinaster with a similar Tyrrhenian source. Further work evaluated Pinus canariensis populations in the “Barranco de Arguineguín” (Gran Canaria) which is a marginal little grove that has the greatest genetic diversity of all the Canary Islands pine forests. The grove is located less than 500 m, a habitat that is much lower than the altitudinal zone attributed by scientists to Canarian pine. In recent years, he studied the physicochemical properties of the cuticle and the functional revision of the established ecological concept of this structure in Vegetal Anatomy.


In 1986 he started to study elms drew upon previous work to combine the entomological formation with genetics. More of twenty years later, this integration succeeded in combating the appearance of the grafiosis disease in elms in Spain, which killed millions of trees and affected a group of arboreal species, the most severely threatened of the Euroamerican forest flora. To achieve this, work was carried out in partnership with Central Forestry Administration, European and National programs. The project, called “Improvement and conservation of the genetic resources of the Iberian elm” cataloged in 2013 the first five native genotypes of Ulmus minor resistant to grafiosis. Currently he has worked with more than a dozens of new elms in which their tolerance to the disease is tested with promising results. Is underway a second generation of clones -the result of the crossing individuals from the first generation– that will achieve greater resistance. It is worth noting that the trials necessary to catalog a genotype as “resistant” has taken over a decade of work. The National Program (1986 to present) has assured the recovery of elm forests. A LIFE project (2014-19) has permitted the reforestation of 12,000 elms in Madrid province after the first cataloging of resistant trees in 2013.


The study of Iberian elms has proven the scientific, natural and cultural value of such species. Before Dutch-elm disease, more than half of our elms were formed by a single individual, descendant of a clone introduced 2000 years ago by Columella in Spain, and then England and Switzerland, as vineyards were cultivated together with elms in Roman times. His work has added another tree to the Iberian Forest Flora, since in the scientific field Ulmus laevis was considered as an introduced species. It has been demonstrated the autochthonous character of the white elm (Ulmus laevis) in siliceous Spain was a refuge during the glaciations of the populations of Western Europe; and that common elm (Ulmus minor) is only natural of the limestone Spain, but spread throughout Spain and the Canary Islands by man.


Since 1992, he performed studies in “El Hayedo de Montejo” (Madrid), through agreements with the Community of Madrid and Research National Plan and Community of Madrid projects. This forest of only 120 ha gathers various Central European species in a Mediterranean environment, including oaks and centennial beech trees, in the south-western limit of both species. More than 25 years of work have allowed us to understand the evolution of climate and the importance of meteorological variable changes and forest stands. In this unique and emblematic Spanish forest, the study of genetics, dynamics and evolution demonstrated high values of intraspecific biodiversity which ensure its resistance to climate change. This work also highlights the role of the field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) which has been shown as the basic element to avoid oaks inbreeding and achieve the annual regeneration of the trees.


From 2006-2011, he directed a development cooperation project funded by the Polytechnic University of Madrid for the improvement of eucalypts as an instrument for the reduction of poverty in rural areas of Ethiopia. This species, as much as for its high production as also for being compatible with the livestock, highly contributes to the generation of house-hold economic income, to the diversification of the agrarian systems of the small land owners. Eucalyptus plantations satisfy the demand for timber products in very populated territories which are deforested and with high rates of erosion. In 2010 the Ethiopian government commended the project with a special award, and in 2012 he was UPM PRIZE for International Cooperation in Research for Development.


Eucalypts trees are a solidary, exotic, but not invasive species. He is the author of the report requested by the Ministry of Agriculture that denies the invasive nature of eucalypts in natural vegetation and promotes its use in places that allow economic productions such as in the Spanish Cantabrian Coast. This species is considered as a key rural development factor that benefits thousands of small land owners, who own the vast majority of the existing eucalypt plantations.


In parallel, his work has been complemented with studying Forest History to better understand the cultural, economic and social processes that have reduced wooded landscapes to territories of lower agronomic value due to forest fires and historical preponderance of The Mesta, a powerful association of sheep holders. It considers that the structure and expansion of holm oaks is due to human activities in detriment of other mixed formations favored by the rural population. Hence, he defended the beneficial role of reforestation using the Spanish pines. This was broadly carried out by forest engineers since 1940, during the dictatorship of General Franco. He has co-authored twelve monographs on the historical transformation of the forest landscape in Autonomous Communities. This work shows the progressive deterioration and the large scale of forest degradation in our country until the reforestation period and the abandonment of agriculture and marginal livestock. Currently, by using GIS methodology, he works on identifying the real layout of Roman roads in Spain. This study allows us to locate ancient populations and evidence the high economic and social development at this time, which links the loss of forests, among other causes, to the need for energy from firewood and charcoal for mining.


In 1991 it was secretary of the IX National Meeting of the Spanish Society of Plant Physiology and the II Hispano-Luso Congress of Plant Physiology, held in Madrid. From 1993 to 2000 he was the Spanish representative of the Committee: “Quercus suber network” of the European Forest Genetic Resources Program" (EUFORGEN) under the "International Plant Genetic Resources Institute". Between 2000 and 2005 he was chairman of the Committee: “EUFORGEN Mediterranean Oaks network". In 2003 he promoted and presided the "Second International Elm Conference", held in Valsaín (Segovia, Spain). In 2010 he organized the congress "Eucalyptus species management, history, status, and trends in Ethiopia", held in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). Since 2014 he has been a member of the Board of the National Park of the Sierra de Guadarrama, at the proposal of the Junta de Castilla y León.


He has been principal researcher or coordinator of 221 national or international competitive research projects and responsible or principal researcherof 82 technical assistance or research projects together with enterprises, Central Administration or Autonomics. He has been director or co-director of 37 doctoral theses and has participated in 365 technical or scientific publications, of which 206 are in documents of the Journal Citation Reports (JCR). Due to the impact of his publications, in March 2019, was placed at the top of the "forestry" area in Spain.


In 1983, he received the PFEIL Reisestipendium of the Stiftung F.V.S. of Hamburg, awarded by the Forstwissenschaftliche Fakultät of the Albert Ludwigs Universität Freiburg im Breisgau. In 1989 he was awarded the I ENCE AWARD for Genetic Improvement of Forest Species of the CEOE Foundation. In 2016, he obtains the UPM Prize for Research.