1. Three permanent plots (100×0 m) were established in the subalpine Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst.) forest of Paneveggio in the spring of 1993, to begin a long-term forest ecosystem research project. The main purpose of these plots was to provide information about subalpine Norway spruce stand dynamics and to provide suggestions for close-to-nature silviculture.
2. The three stands were selected to represent the most common forest structures in the Paneveggio forest. The first stand is close to forestry roads, has a relatively regular and continuous canopy, and thinning and cutting operations only ended in the 1980s; the second stand is far from forest roads and has developed without anthropogenic influence for several decades; the third one is located at the present upper limit of the pure spruce forest and, apparently, was heavily used in the past as a pasture.
3. The first step in the investigation was to describe the structure and to study the history of the three stands using both written evidence from manage- ment plans and biological archives from tree rings.
4. The stands in plots 1 and 2 began to establish after a disturbance that removed part of the previous stands according to dendroecological studies, which are partially supported by written evidence. The remaining parts of these stands were eliminated by two major disturbances that occurred during the following decades. Written records about the use of the forest lead us to assume that the initial disturbances that occurred in the two stands were logging activities as a part of a group shelterwood system. The stand in plot 2 has developed without significant human interference for about half a century as confirmed by the presence of many dead trees. The stand in plot 3 consists of old trees that were part of an open stand and a secondary population that established after cessation of grazing.
5. The study has confirmed that dendroecological techniques can be used to identify occurrence and intensity of previous disturbance in forests stands, although at Paneveggio it is difficult to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic disturbances in the tree ring record. The presence of human activity necessitates investigation of multiple lines of evidence.
6. Paneveggio's forest management plans were useful in the interpretation of the data obtained through dendroecological analysis, although events did not always correspond because data from the management plans (yearly thinning, felling, wind-throw damage) never gave stand-level details, but applied to areas of several hectares. Despite these limitations, the information included in the management plans is of crucial importance in studying stand history and only by using all these sources of information is it possible to delineate the most important features of the history and disturbance that affected the origin and subsequent growth of the forest stands.