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.
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.
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."
Rarely in the history of postwar Germany has a relatively insightful piece of proposed legislation been prepared so meticulously. But at stake was the forest, after all. And nothing brings out the Germans' urge to protest quite as strongly as their concern for trees.
Bonde hired a professor from the University of Stuttgart specialized in conflict management to organize civic participation in accordance with scientific methods, including a "Forest and Wood Cluster" and the "Auerhuhn Regional Task Force." The professor developed risk analyses and courses of action, as well as four modules that included representatives of local communities, associations, forest rangers, conservationists and hoteliers.
The results were packaged, debated, compared and incorporated. Citizens were provided with brochures, complaint forms and an Internet forum. Everyone had an equal say, from the "Grouse Task Force" to the top chef at the Schwarzwaldhof Hotel and the owner of a small sawmill in Hinterseebach.
The final, 1,200-page report by PricewaterhouseCoopers arrives at the predictable result: If large-scale and undisturbed process protection is to be made possible in Baden-Württemberg, there are no viable alternatives.
But when Governor Kretschmann and Minister Bonde arrived in Bad Wildbad to explain to the public the results of their participation -- broadcast live on the Internet -- they were confronted with signs bearing legends such as "Democracy in a Chokehold," "Here Come the Little Bugs" and "No Nature Ghetto for Weekend Eco-Activists." They were already familiar with the tone of the protests. Fischer and his organization were apparently not convinced.
"We really did everything," says Bonde. "All arguments were put on the table. But the local communities don't have a veto. The forest belongs to all Baden-Württemberg residents. Besides…," he says, before being interrupted by his cuckoo clock, "every forested national park was highly controversial at first. We're still in pretty good shape by comparison."
A majority of residents in seven surrounding communities have spoken out against the project.
In Baiersbronn, 78 percent of residents were opposed. But four of the town council members directly affected by the park voted for it, as did three towns and administrative districts, no matter which political party was in power there. According to a Forsa poll conducted in August, more than two-thirds of respondents in both the region and the state have no objections to the national park.
Feelings Versus Factual Arguments
But democracy isn't mathematics. Wolfgang Tzschupke heads the Free Voters' Group in the town council of Freudenstadt. Tzschupke, a retired forestry professor with a neatly trimmed moustache, is deeply opposed to the national park. "It does nothing for conservation or the regional economy."
He is looking at the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, marked with yellow Post-it notes. Tzschupke calls himself "more of the planning type." Nevertheless, the self-assurance of the Stuttgart planners makes him suspicious. "Who knows if that many visitors will truly show up, once the bark beetle starts killing off large numbers of trees."
The government's figure of 0.7 percent is on everyone's lips. But for the town of Baiersbronn, a third of its forested land is at stake. The people there feel that they are being talked down to. They also fear that they will soon be dealing with even more government agencies, restrictions and prohibitions.
It's not a question of feelings, says Tzschupke, but of what he calls "factual arguments." He is referring to insect swarms, populations of hoofed game and new-growth forests dominated by spruce trees. "Is it smart to make forests off-limits to commercial exploitation if we need renewable resources? Biodiversity also exists in forests that are managed in ways that approximate nature." The idea of 10,000 hectares of forest remaining unutilized makes the retired forestry scientist feel uncomfortable. Listening to him, one is reminded of something the Austrian write Robert Musil once said: "A German forest doesn't do this sort of thing."
The law is likely to be passed this week and will probably come into effect at the beginning of next year. It provides for a 30-year transition period to allow the lumber industry to adjust. The loss of 27,000 solid cubic meters of lumber a year represents merely a fraction of the 8.5 million logged in the entire state of Baden-Württemberg.
For Tzschupke, this is a typically Green calculation, the sort of thing that only amateurs, the false friends of the forest, would think of. "The quality of wood we have in the planned national park isn't that easy to find elsewhere. The small sawmills need this natural resource."
The entire public debate is hypocrisy, and the concessions are nothing but the sale of indulgences to conceal dogmatism, says Tzschupke. "Everything was decided from the start. That's my frustrating experience," he adds. His sober appearance belies his beliefs. "As long as things are done in a civilized way, our chances are slim. In the case of Stuttgart 21, the round-table discussions didn't happen until after the situation has escalated." The understated appeal of the protest method known as the black bloc, in which protesters wear clothing to conceal their identities, even exists in Baiersbronn, it seems.
A Fairy-Tale Landscape
The northern Black Forest, as dark and wild as it is, is no Grand Canyon or Yosemite Park, but a cultivated landscape that has been used for pasture and logging for 500 years. There are medieval silver mines in the region, and the streams have been dammed to create basins for rafting, sawmills and fly-fishing.
Some 70 percent of the forest now consists of spruce, where silver fir and beech trees once grew. It would take centuries to reestablish the forest's original condition without human intervention. And who has that much time?
Wolfgang Schlund does. The forest and meadow biologist is the head of the conservation center on Ruhestein pass, above Baiersbronn. He is one of the passionate supporters of the project, and he stands a good chance of being named director of the national park.
Schlund, apparently unimpressed by the heavy rain, is making his way through the "protective forest" around a lake at the base of Hornisgrinde Mountain, an area that offers a taste of what "process protection" and "biodiversity" would mean for the region. More than a century ago, the Royal Württemberg Forestry Directorate declared the forest a fully protected reserve. In 1922, forestry official Otto Feucht described the reserve as a place "where trees are still allowed to grow in the way nature intended, upright until advanced age, then collapsed and gradually disintegrating, creating new soil for a new generation."
The reserve has turned into a fairy-tale landscape. The slippery path crosses gnarled roots and sharp sandstone outcroppings. Everything is oozing and rushing and gurgling, and yet it is so quiet and deserted that you can almost hear the sound of your own blood coursing through your veins. There are isolated ancient trees with crowns that disappear into the milky haze, towering over bilberry bushes, bentgrass and limp ferns. Schlund talks about the silver fir bark beetle, and about the 260 species living in the stump of a dead tree. Schlund doesn't think in terms of 10-year or 20-year periods. He wants people to still be able to experience a wild forest in the year 2513.
"Our forests are generally too young," he says. "We need a mosaic consisting of a wide range of stages, from fresh, green saplings to dead wood. Small, scattered conservation areas aren't enough. We need a big area." And only in the northern Black Forest is there still a sufficient amount of unpopulated state-owned forest to make a national park possible at all. It's a one-time opportunity.
Letting Nature Be Nature
Opponents of the project say that a "biosphere reserve" or a "nature park" would have been enough. The protective provisions are not quite as strict, and both tourism and forestry can be allowed to continue. But that is precisely the point, says Schlund: not keeping things as they are. A nature park is intended to protect a cultivated landscape. In contrast, the goal in creating a national park is to allow natural processes to unfold with as little human interference as possible. In essence, the goal is simply to allow nature to be nature.
The state already owns the land, so that no one will be dispossessed. "People can continue to forage for mushrooms and go snowshoeing in the winter," says Schlund. He has explained this to citizens again and again, at more than 160 events. So what are they afraid of? "I can understand that some people find it very upsetting to see a tree trunk simply rotting away. They want to use the wood."
Schlund understands that some people are uneasy about the term "wild animal management" being used instead of "hunting." Local residents are suspicious about the degreed "bug counters" from Stuttgart. Their feelings are part of a rebellious attitude toward intervention in general and the perception of a new kind of corrupt alliance in particular, one made up of conservation groups, Greens, ecologists and the media, which seems to be getting more powerful and concentrated.
"Perhaps we made the mistake of not stating clearly enough that it is isn't a matter of whether but of how this happens. The question of whether will be decided in the state parliament. We warmly welcome those in the region who want to be part of it."
Schlund points to a soaring gray shaft without branches, the skeleton of a spruce tree that's been decimated by insects. "But the creatures that live here aren't interested in what the forest looks like. They want to survive the winter. The forest is what they live on."
Schlund is referring to the woodlouse, for example, and the bugs, worms and fungi that have a completely different take on what a fulfilled life in the forest is like than hunters and foresters and the members of the Murgschifferschaft.
Reinvigorating the Region
Schlund and Tzschupke could hardly be more unalike. Tzschupke is part of the old school of forestry science. For him, the bark beetle, all civic activism aside, is not what Schlund calls an "agent of transformation," but a pest that will destroy everything unless it is stopped. The two men represent two different concepts of both the forest and the world.
An old border runs through the future park. The stone markers are still there, now covered by protective forest. It's the border between the historical states of Baden and Württemberg, a cultural watershed. To the west of it lies Baden, a region of valleys that feed into the Rhine River plain. The region to the east, with its ravine-like valleys, is "Pietcong" terrain, the province of the Württemberg state church. For Protestants, a national park is a sin, purely as a matter of principle. "Turning over the northern Black Forest to the forces of nature is not in keeping with the biblical mission to cultivate and preserve creation." These were the words of Sabine Kurtz, a member of the state parliament, chairman of the Protestant Working Group of the state CDU organization, and the wife of a chief forester.
Where does nature begin, how much intervention can it tolerate, and what kind of nature is the average tourist looking for? There are so many questions for town officials to ponder, questions hovering somewhere between philosophy and tourism. The park will become a reality. Last Monday, Andreas Fischer, the head of the resistance movement, presented the concept of a "citizens' national park," together with the CDU opposition, to officials in Stuttgart. It's a light version of the proposed park, much smaller and, above all, open to unlimited hunting and logging. But it is political dead wood.
"That ship has sailed," says a mayor who was actually opposed to the park. Even project opponents admit that it's time to start thinking about the future of the northern Black Forest. It isn't exactly a thriving landscape. Local sawmills are struggling to compete with the prices of international logging companies. Many sawmills have already been shut down, while others are still searching for their ecotope.
The numbers of overnight stays are declining everywhere. Traditional Black Forest tourism, with its bed-and-breakfasts and hotel signs in Old German lettering, is no longer in demand. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimates that the national park could attract three million visitors a year, which is optimistic. Wolfgang Tzschupke accuses the report's authors of "methodically incorrect calculations."
Nevertheless, there is probably no other alternative to reinvigorating the region. In Forbach, the town where park critic Fischer lives, an investor plans to build a nature park hotel, complete with tree houses, outdoor education and a tree top walk. He has only been waiting for the first reading in parliament and the minister's speech, says the investor.
Fears, Fatigue and Foresight
There is a path that runs along the side of the hill up on Ruhestein Pass. The land drops off sharply to the left, and the Schwarzwaldhochstraße, or Black Forest High Road, is visible down below, between the spruce trees. Everything is clear toward the front, where the bedrock ends and the horizon expands across the Rhine plain, all the way to the Vosges Mountains in France. "People are filled with an old fear that their forest will be taken away from them, by outsiders and people from the city with university degrees," says Friederike Schneider. "That's in their heads. You can't get to that."
Her family has lived in the region for generations. When she was a child, when everyone was talking about forest dieback, Schneider wanted to save the forest. Now the 23-year-old is studying forestry science, volunteering as a ranger in the protected forest and has successfully run for a seat on the Baiersbronn town council. The mutual hostility at meetings was sometimes hard to bear, she says. "Maybe it's really because of the narrow valleys." And now, she says, she feels that there is nothing but fatigue over the issue. People avoid talking about it, because it's too close to the bone.
It snowed for the first time during the night. "I love the protective forest. I'm so thankful that someone decided, a hundred years ago, to leave this piece of forest alone."
The sun is just beneath the clouds, illuminating the Rhine plain. The terrain dips steeply down to the plain, with the greenish-black color of the forest in the foreground, interspersed with the last yellowish-red leaves of the beech trees, and Alsace in the distance. The Strasbourg Cathedral is even visible. It's undeniably beautiful. "And then I think about how much people, 300 years from today, will appreciate what we did," says Schneider.
And, with all due respect to the pygmy owl, those are the ones who ultimately matter the most.