Stumped: Black Forest Conservation Gets Controversial

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Photo Gallery: Fighting over the Black Forest's Future Photos
Maria Irl/ DER SPIEGEL

The regional Green government plans to create a national park in the northern Black Forest, much to the consternation of many locals. Although well-intentioned, the state project has unleashed a culture war.

Andreas Fischer's home overlooks a meadow lined by a classic German forest of spruce trees, their tops adorned with wisps of early morning fog. But he isn't looking at the view.

He knows what his forest feels like, how it smells and even sounds different every morning. Fischer is a staunch advocate of forest conservation, which is why he has four flat-screen monitors set up next to the view, arranged next to each other in an arc, like a second horizon. This is his office, his control center, his "war room." Fischer, an IT consultant from Hundsbach in the Forbach district of the Murg River Valley, has been waging a war for the last year and a half, and he'll continue doing so, if need be. Fischer, like his forest, isn't in a hurry.

The future of that forest is at stake.

Alexander Bonde lives behind the Hundsbach spruce forest, in Mitteltal, part of the Baiersbronn community. He is one of Fischer's neighbors, but he is also a minister in the state cabinet in faraway Stuttgart. He too has his office on a hill, and he also has a nice view. Bonde looks down at Stuttgart's main train station, the construction site of Stuttgart 21, the urban renewal project to which Green Party politician Bonde, the state of Baden-Württemberg's Minister of Rural Affairs and Consumer Protection, partly owes his position.

Bonde has a minimalist cuckoo clock hanging in his office, is fond of wine festivals and likes wearing a loden jacket.

As far as Fischer is concerned, this man in loden is an ideology-driven eco-dictator. The minister, for his part, sees Fischer as a dangerous demagogue with a murky background. The two men have one thing in common: a certain love of the forest.

More precisely: the Black Forest, a wild region of southwestern Germany not traversed by any autobahn, but rather by mostly narrow roads wedged in between the thick evergreen forests, roads that quake under the weight of lumber trucks. The region, with its granite and red sandstone, the Höllental valley and the Wutachschlucht gorge, abounds with clichés and myths alike.

Fighting over the Forest

On Oct. 23, Minister Bonde stood before the Baden-Württemberg state parliament. A bill on the establishment of a Black Forest national park was the first item on the agenda. Under the proposed legislation, 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres), or 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) representing 0.7 percent of the state's forests, would be returned to nature.

Bonde talked about the three-toed woodpecker, the European redstart and the Hericium mushroom. He seemed more nervous than usual. He talked about civic activism and creating buffer strips against swarms of destructive insects, to protect the adjacent privately owned forests. He also mentioned people like Andreas Fischer, along with other skeptics and opponents of the proposed park in the neighboring communities. As he concluded his statement, he pulled out a black-and-white photo. It depicted two wide-open, startled-looking eyes, with a beak in-between. "It's all about him," he said, his voice raised. "It's about him, the pygmy owl."

This isn't a question of nuclear waste disposal or open-pit mining on the Hornisgrinde mountain. But the proposal to establish a national park in the northern Black Forest -- which has gone virtually unnoticed in the rest of Germany -- has led to a culture war, complete with protests and resistance against a large-scale conservation project that some residents of valleys in the northern Black Forest perceive as bullying by the Green Party.

Should the forest be left alone or used for commercial purposes? If only it were that easy. And because the German debate over forested landscapes is always about more than just trees, the protests are by no means peaceful. In fact, at times they can be downright sinister and oppressive.

Park proponents have had their tires slashed. People in local clubs no longer greet each other. Some become the targets of malicious gossip, threats and bullying. The issue has even divided some families. There are signs at town entrances depicting a diagonal red line drawn through the word "National Park," not unlike the posters that were used by anti-Stuttgart 21 demonstrators. But the Black Forest signs are in green.

When Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann made an appearance in the town of Bad Wildbad, he was greeted by protesters singing the traditional song "Oh Black Forest, My Home." One heckler shouted: "Judas! Bastard!"

One local town council member was so ashamed for his fellow citizens that he resigned. But where does this rage come from? A forest ranger from Alpirsbach even wrote a thriller inspired by the issue, featuring a politician who gets a dead cat tacked to his door and ends up kidnapped, stuck into a bag and hoisted up a huge tree. The politician is a Green Party member and comes from Baiersbronn.

Virulent Opposition

Is this the kind of place that someone like Bonde wants to continue calling home? It's a question activist Andreas Fischer poses, as he sits in his office in Hundsbach, surrounded by monitors, whiteboards and hunting trophies. He says a few other things, but he doesn't want to see them in print.

Fischer is the strategist for the anti-park resistance movement. His group, "Our Northern Black Forest," fears that the forest could soon look like a cemetery, dotted with dead, gray spruce trees, because the bark beetle will ultimately be the only creature to benefit from the new wilderness.

Fischer loves his stretch of forest, and he loves hunting there. Most of all, though, he loves to ambush the state government in faraway Stuttgart.

He has managed to turn a widespread skepticism into a political movement. The banners at town entrances were his idea. He also invited Alexander Niemetz, a former anchorman for the ZDF television network, to talk about "virtuous terror" and the "bullying Green dictatorship." Niemetz's remarks were well received. And that was the goal, wasn't it?

In addition to hunting trophies, Fischer collects memorabilia from the early days of the computer. He is no forest demon, and it's easy to underestimate him, because words are his weapons. But he also has a knack for producing hard-hitting rhetoric, phrases like "they're turning us into laboratory rats," "eco-colonialism" and, in a play on the title of a German Christmas carol, "Here Come the Little Bugs." His slogans later appeared on signs attached to the tractors driven by local farmers. Fischer knew all too well that his words would cut to the quick of the new lawmakers in Stuttgart, with their roots in civic activism, especially in the case of Minister Bonde.

"We had expected that the plan wouldn't be greeted with open arms," Bonde says in Stuttgart. But he was surprised by the virulent opposition from deep within the rural northern Black Forest region.

Future national parks are likely to be located at some distance from urban areas. They are being planned in places that are home not only to the three-toed woodpecker but also other casualties of modernization, such as the darkest corners of the Black Forest. Suddenly people are remembering incidents like the fire that burned down a building slated to be a residence for asylum seekers. The perpetrators were never found. If the forest represents the German soul, the northern Black Forest is certainly not its most enlightened side.

Balancing Priorities

For local residents, it seems perverse that the Greens are suddenly in power in Stuttgart. Forest managers are still members of an organization called the "Murgschifferschaft," a relic from the days when wooden rafts plied the Murg River, and its bylaws are based on old German laws. Nevertheless, it's a lively group, and local activist Fischer is a member of its board of directors.

When Bonde first assumed office, in March 2011, a "search zone" for a national park had already been established. It consisted of two areas totaling 10,000 hectares. The project had already been pursued in the 1990s by the then minister, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but was postponed in response to pressure from the Murgschifferschaft, sawmills and forest owners.

Since then, the German government has decided that 5 percent of the country's forested areas are to be returned to the wild. Germany has signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, says Bonde. "As a wealthy, exporting nation," he notes, "we cannot expect Brazil to leave 25 percent of its rainforest untouched, while we don't even devote 0.7 percent of our government-owned forests to biodiversity. Others are paying close attention to what we do."

And then there are the expectations of the conservation lobby, which includes organizations ranging from NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) to Greenpeace, groups whose agendas reflect the aims of the Green Party. The national park project is outlined in the Kretschmann government's coalition agreement. It wanted the park, but it was determined not to allow the issue to be overshadowed by so much as a hint of the arrogance of power. That was what led to the collapse of the CDU-led governments of former CDU Baden-Württemberg Chairman Hans Filbinger, former Governor Lothar Späth, Erwin Teufel, the former leader of the CDU faction in the state parliament and former CDU Governor Stefan Mappus, amid a chorus of catcalls from citizens holding up abusive signs.

The new state government, a coalition of the Greens and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), promised dialogue - although, in a nod to his role model, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who believed in the power of civic engagement, Kretschmann said: "Citizens are heard, but not obeyed."

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1. Black Forest
4uDoc 11/28/2013
The theft of publically revered areas such as the Black Forest forr the exclusive benefit of one or another group is Tyranny. The road to Hell is paved with such so-called "good intentions". Enough! Hands Off!
2. Peasantisms
hercynianforest 11/29/2013
Back in the good old days there used to be a baron or landgraf who said to the peasants, "Hands off MY forest." Now we have democracy and capitalism, the twin evils where every peasant and peasant-like burgher, stoked on Adam Smithisms, thinks the world revolves around his individual scheme of getting wealthy. Unfortunately, the world can't take much more of this "peasantism." In the past, when places like Germany could rely only on their own local/regional resource base, the monarchy -- always thinking long-term -- had to keep things real. They had limit the human impact on the land so that the land would always remain healthy. Today, however, we have great difficulties planning and acting for the long-term vis-a-vis resource sustainability realities. Peasantism insists wealth is everyone's birthright, that reality is something to be voted away when you don't like it. So when experts and scientists warm of overuse, peasantism flares up and tries to skew the arguments away from long-term thinking for the greater good. And so I say, bring back the baron who protected the land for the long-term and suffered no peasant back-talk!
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