Ignoring the Monoculture Menace: Choking on Spruce in Germany

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Half a year ago, the storm Kyrill toppled more than 40 million trees in Germany, most of them in planned spruce forests. But now, instead of environmentally appropriate replanting, foresters are returning to monocultures.

Tree farmer Georg Feldmann-Schütte's business is still booming. His mobile phone rings practically every minute. "Drive to the track where you loaded up yesterday," he shouts into the phone, barking his orders in a rapid staccato. "That was a truck driver," he explains, apologizing for the interruption. "We have to get the timber out of the forest as quickly as possible."

"Forest" is perhaps not quite the right word. For the past six months since the storm, entire hillsides here have been covered with a jumble of fallen trees. "It looks like a giant sat down here," Feldmann-Schütte jokes.

Speed is of the essence for Feldmann-Schütte's operation. The longer the lumber lies around, the more likely it is to get infested by bark beetles. Besides, the color of the wood darkens over time, and furniture makers aren't interested in dark wood. "Then we'll only be able to sell it as cheap firewood," Feldmann-Schütte explains.

The Frenzy Will Soon End

The high winds of the storm known as "Kyrill" mowed down at least 65 of his 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest. Feldmann-Schütte, a native of Schmallenberg in Germany's central Sauerland region, comforts himself with the knowledge that he was lucky not to have lost everything. He now has to sell at least 2,000 cubic meters of solid wood to sawmills.

But the frenzy will soon end, and once everything has been cleared away and seedlings are in the ground along his hillsides, life will return to its normal, quiet pace for Feldmann-Schütte. "Then I can sit back and watch the trees grow for the next 25 years," he says.

Kyrill, which swept across Germany on Jan. 18, was one of the most powerful storms to hit the country in decades. It knocked over even more trees in Germany than another major winter storm, Lothar, did at Christmas 1999. Kyrill left tree farmers, many in the mountainous Sauerland region, wondering what to do with at least 41 million fallen trees.

That was half a year ago, and now it has become clear that the damage left in Kyrill's wake hasn't made foresters and tree farmers any smarter. In many places they are planting fast-growing plantations of conifers once again. Feldmann-Schütte is no exception. "I can't afford any experiments," he says, apologetically.

Ironically, it was precisely spruce trees that suffered the most damage from the storm's high winds. For decades, environmentally savvy foresters have been preaching the same mantra: "If you want to destroy the forest, plant spruce, spruce and more spruce." Kyrill proved them right. Sixty-five percent of all toppled trees were spruce.

Farmer's Bread and Butter

Environmentalists hate the trees almost as much as the forestry industry loves them. The spruce grows quickly, becoming tall and as straight. Partly because the spruce is the ideal tree for producing long boards, it is considered the tree farmer's bread and butter.

On the other hand, the spruce has shallow roots, making it vulnerable to storms. "The dry weather of the last three years has also weakened them," says Peter Wohlleben, a forest ranger from Hümmel, a village of 500 inhabitants in Germany's western Eifel Mountains region. Wohlleben embodies the type of forest ranger who has switched to environmentally sound forest management.

The havoc wreaked by Kyrill.
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The havoc wreaked by Kyrill.

Kyrill also raged across the 1,300 hectares Wohlleben managers as forest ranger. "But the high percentage of deciduous trees limited our damage," he says happily. Beech trees are predominant in his forest, but maples and rowan trees have also sowed themselves without much effort on Wohlleben's part. All of these species shed their leaves in the winter, when the most powerful storms typically rage. "It's the most natural form of storm protection," Wohlleben explains.

In his view Kyrill, despite the widespread destruction it caused, created the opportunity for a new beginning, and the introduction of a more natural -- and sustainable -- approach to forest management. It could allow an attractive forest to develop and replace the spruce forest. Why, Wohlleben asks, shouldn't this disaster herald the end of monocultures, in which the range of species is as narrow as in a cornfield?

'Forestry Is Like Piloting a Tanker'

More important, a shift in forestry methods could help prepare German forests for global warming. Climate researchers' forecasts for the year 2100 seem a long way off for many people, but not for tree farmers. "A tree I plant today will be harvested at the end of the century," says Wohlleben, who believes that now is the time to draw the right conclusions from climate models. "Forestry is like piloting a tanker. We too take a long time to stop or change course."

All climate researchers agree on one point: Spruce trees will not be able to survive Germany's climate for much longer as it gets warmer and dryer. The Bavarian Forest Institute (LWF) recently concluded that, as temperatures rise, Germany will no longer be in the climate zone in which the spruce can survive. It's a different story altogether with the beech tree, which is native to Germany and will repopulate the areas left empty as spruce trees die out.

Or at least they will if they are allowed to. But Wohlleben and his fellow activists at the Working Group for Natural Forest Management (ANW) have noted with great concern a return to the days of monoculture. "What we believed had disappeared decades ago is returning, slowly but surely," he says. Because the spruce is susceptible to natural disasters, profit-oriented tree farmers have increasingly been using the Douglas fir, a conifer from the western United States, and the American coastal pine. Both trees are considered relatively heat- and storm-resistant.

But as foreign species they carry ecological risks. Because Douglas firs are not native to Germany's forests, the local flora and fauna, especially microscopic organisms, do not establish habitats in the new environment. "The forest deteriorates into a species-poor desert," says Wohlleben. Only the bark beetle has become accustomed to the Douglas fir so far, and is already infesting it with gusto.

Ecologically Crazy

But the trees can also import new pests from abroad. German gardeners are currently experiencing this phenomenon with their Colorado pines as they notice the sticky trails of the bark louse, a native of North America, on the trunks.

But tree farmers are undeterred by these risks. Hans Graf von der Goltz, the national chairman of the ANW, fears the return of monocultures where Kyrill has knocked down entire forests. "They'll grow Douglas fir or spruce in monoculture and harvest everything after 60 years," says Goltz, a senior forestry official from Schmallenberg. "And if a storm takes care of harvesting the trees, the plantation owners certainly won't mind."

Environmental activists are especially outraged that the state has even gone back to subsidizing this far-from-sustainable practice. According to the guidelines for reforestation following Kyrill that the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, Agriculture and Consumer Protection of the state of North Rhine Westphalia will announce this month, the state will pay a subsidy of 40 euro cents per seedling, even in forests which are 50 percent conifers. "And this despite the fact that in the past conifers were no longer supported," complains Bernd Dierdorf, the head of the forestry office in the north central city of Minden.

The subsidy program, at a cost of more than €100 million, is being financed partly from the sale of state-owned forest land. In a memo dated May 8 of this year, the ministry asked its forestry management offices to identify suitable parcels of land. According to internal sources, 26,000 hectares (64,220 acres) of forest have already been registered with the ministry. This is a scandal for Dierdorf. "They want to give away the family silver to promote forestry which is ecologically crazy," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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