Traditional land classifications developed on the basis of what was once prevailing expert knowledge have since largely become obsolete. We assessed expert knowledge based landscape-level units delineated in central European temperate forests: Natural Forest Areas (NFA) and Forest Vegetation Zones (FVZ). Our focus was determining to what degree these units reflect vegetation-environmental relationships. After considering as many as 49,000 plots with vegetation and 25,000 plots with environmental data within a territory of the Czech Republic, we analyzed 11,885 plots. We used multivariate statistics to discriminate between the landscape-level units. While NFAs performed extremely well, FVZ results were less successful. Classification of the environment provided better results than classification of vegetation for both the Hercynicum and Carpaticum phytogeographic part of the Czech Republic. Taking into account significance of the environment in our analysis, a delimitation of FVZs and similar vegetation-driven structures worldwide via explicit a priori stratification by tree species without consideration of environmental limits would not be supported by our analysis. We suggest not relying only on vegetation in classification analyses, but also including the significant environmental factors for direct classification of FVZ and units in particular in altered vegetation composition setting such as the central European forests. We propose a novel interpretation of FVZ via appropriate vegetation stratification throughout the environment used in conjunction with the zonal concept. Understanding of coarse-scaled vegetation-environmental relationships is not only fundamental in forest ecology and forest management, but is also essential for improving lower classification levels. Valuable expert knowledge should be combined with formal quantification, which is consistent with recent calls for advanced multidisciplinary ecological classifications in Europe and North America and for forming classifications in Asia.
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