How to save the German forest | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

When Peter Wohlleben sets foot in his local forest in the Eifel region, a crow sings and the 58-year-old can’t resist a smile. “I’m happy every time I hear it, it’s also a conservation success story – 20 years ago the crows were extinct here,” he says.

The country’s most famous ranger and author of the best-selling book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, is clearly in his element. He thinks it’s not too late to save Germany’s forests.

“Der Deutsche Wald” (The German Forest) has special significance for the socio-cultural identity of the country. It is the backdrop for historical and national myths and a metaphor for Germanic culture. It has become the landscape of desire in romantic poems, fairy tales and legends since the beginning of the 19th century. And in Nazi ideology, the motif of the “German forest” had its place in propaganda comparable to “blood and soil”.

Since Wohlleben became guardian of his first forest district 30 years ago, forest rescue has become his life’s work. Due to climate change, it is becoming more and more difficult day by day. His prognosis: “We are now in the greatest drought of the last 100 years. I estimate that we will lose half of the forest area in Germany in the next 10 years. Conifer plantations are disappearing everywhere.”

Forest in critical condition

For years, annual reports on the state of German forests have painted shocking pictures. Only one in five trees is undamaged. The German forest is sick – and there are reasons for that.

“If you want to harvest wood, you first need functioning forests, otherwise there will be hardly any jobs in the forest industry in the future. But we are currently logging at the highest level in decades as if there is no tomorrow. The forestry industry works in the same way as the oil industry, only the profit of the next 10 or 20 years counts”, criticizes Wohlleben.

Wohlleben wants to leave the forest in peace

It is statements such as these from the famous forester that set many of the 35,000 people employed in Germany’s forestry industry cringe, wondering how they could possibly survive.

Wohlleben’s magic formula, on the other hand, is: protect 20% of the natural forest and cultivate the remaining 80% with native tree species. And his credo: the forest can only be saved if we leave it alone. He cites the area around Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant as the best example of this – 36 years after the nuclear disaster, true wilderness has appeared there again.

Pripyat 2015

Thirty years after the nuclear accident forced an evacuation, Prypjat was overgrown with trees and shrubs

“In places where the deciduous forest is allowed to grow undisturbed, it cools 10 degrees from the open landscape. The forest has been doing this for 300 million years on its own. Forestry, on the other hand, only exists around for 300 years – not even half the lifespan of a tree.And it hasn’t yet proven that it can do things any better.

Peter Wohlleben is celebrated by his growing fanbase for such statements. The Forestry Academy he set up is thriving, and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, appointed last year, has already walked with him in the woods. The one-day “Forest in Climate Change” workshop which costs 98 euros ($99.50) is just as in demand as the crash course in species identification or training to become a forest guide. The funds are intended for tree protection and the Wohlleben Primary Forest Project, in which buyers sponsor their own protected area for 50 years.

Hermann Memorial in the Teutoburg Forest

The Teutoburg Forest is one of the central places of German mythology

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, led by Green Party politician Cem Özdemir, wants to invest 900 million euros in climate-smart forest management, focusing on the adaptation of German forests to make in the face of heat and drought. The air conditioning of nature, as Özdemir calls the forests, is increasingly in danger.

Calls to Action — Unpopular

Christian Ammer is one of Wohlleben’s greatest critics. The forest scientist and professor of silviculture and forest ecology in temperate zones at the University of Göttingen launched an online petition five years ago against Wohlleben’s best-selling book because it mixed fact and speculation. This does not prevent him from simultaneously praising Wohlleben’s dedication: “He has my respect because he popularized the subject of forests.

“We agree to disagree,” is how Ammer tersely describes their exchanges. The two are not so far apart, however, as they share a common goal: to stop clear-cutting in German forests. Ammer also calls for unpopular actions: “Of course, forestry will also have to adapt. The question remains whether, if less wood comes onto the market, it would then be replaced by more energy-intensive products like reinforced concrete. Would we really reduce our consumption, or would we end up importing wood from other countries where it might not be used sustainably?”

According to Ammer, Germany needs eight times as much forest to capture its current annual CO2 emissions.

He says urgent action is needed now: “We need to fundamentally change our mobility and consumption behavior if we are to halt the progress of climate change.”

This article was originally written in German.

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James R. Rhodes