Hardly any rain, high temperatures and droughts. Due to the dry weather, whole forests in Germany are dying. It’s a race against time. Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner promised help.
Stephan Braun is a forester in the city forest of Sinzig, a town with 17,000 inhabitants in the north of the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. For 32 years he has been taking care of 900 hectares of forest. For almost as long he has been fighting a battle that seems more and more hopeless. “30 years ago, we still had 17 percent spruces here,” Braun explains. “Today it’s only seven. There are many reasons for that. But the biggest problem is the bark beetle.” Tiny animals with enormous destructive power.
Small beetle, massive damage
Passing sawn-off tree stumps and loose branches, Braun approaches a tree at the edge of the deforested area. He takes his glasses out of his pocket because the traces of the bark beetle are not easy to discover. After a few seconds he points to the bark. Small holes, only millimetres in size, show where the beetle has drilled its way into the tree. “Once inside, it drills corridors into the wood and deposits larvae in them,” explains Braun. When thousands of animals attack at the same time, they destroy the tree from the inside out. “It sometimes only takes a few weeks for it to die.” The needles fall off, the crown of the tree becomes thinner and the bark loosens.
“We’ve been fighting it for 20 years,” remembers the forester as he walks back to his car. “But back then the problems were even smaller. Because actually a tree defends itself against the parasites. Water and resin under the bark usually make sure that the beetles can’t get in. But if the tree gets too little water, it becomes difficult.”
“The last two years were special conditions for us,” remembers Braun. Last year it practically didn’t rain from July to October. “A spruce survives about four to six weeks without precipitation.” After that it is particularly susceptible to bark beetles. “Climate change may cause us foresters more concern than many others. If periods of drought become normal, the bark beetle will also cause more destruction.”
Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner wants to convene a national forest summit in September in view of the dying forests. “Our forest has been massively damaged”, the CDU politician told the newspaper “Rheinische Post”. “Only by joining forces can we tackle the mammoth task that lies ahead of us to save our forest – not only for us, but for future generations.” Her plan is not only to invest millions in reforestation, but also to understand how to deal with the long-term adaptation of forests to climate change.
A far-reaching problem
Today is another hot and dry day. From above, the sun burns on the forest. The shady trees are no longer there. Stephan Braun had to cut down two hectares since December. And it is getting more and more. Over the past 20 years, ten percent, or 90 hectares, of the forest have been destroyed by the bark beetle. In the first seven months of this year, it should already be ten hectares. A problem that affects foresters and forest owners throughout Germany and Central Europe. 114,000 hectares of forest would have to be reforested in Germany, reports the Federal Government. One third of this is due to the bark beetle, the rest to storm damage.
In the first half of 2019, Stephan Braun recorded around 5000 cubic metres of so-called damaged wood from the Sinzig city forest. In order to prevent the bark beetle from spreading, healthy trees would have to be cut down directly after the first beetle infestation. “But there is no capacity,” says Braun with a disillusioned look. Throughout Germany, the removal of the damaged timber would cost 2.1 billion euros. Money that many forest owners don’t have.
Förster Braun gets into his car and drives on. A few hundred meters away from the barren forest it looks like proper forest again. Dense treetops, little light arrives on the ground. But a closer look shows that the bark beetle has already raged here. The needles of the spruces have turned red. Soon they will probably fall off, Braun says. “They won’t live to see winter,” he says in a resigned voice.
More and more wood would have to be removed from the forest. This is not only expensive, but also uneconomical. “The European timber market is currently being flooded by destroyed timber”, Braun explains. This would have more than halved the income for a cubic metre of wood within two years. After that, new trees would have to be planted in the deforested areas. This costs around five to ten thousand euros per hectare. “Forest owners have to swallow these costs,” criticizes Braun. Cities like Sinzig could survive this. But private individuals or families who own forest land are in serious trouble: “It can threaten their very existence.”
Stephan Braun pauses for a moment. “But that’s also an emotional thing,” he says. When he took over the forest 32 years ago, many of the dying trees had just begun to grow. “It’s hard to see that all the work you’ve put into it is being destroyed.” Braun is in a good position to get his money from the city as a civil servant when the forest yields less. “But it still hurts.”
New forests for the world
Stephan Braun tries not to be too wistful. The whole thing would also have a positive side: “We will now try to make the forest more stable in the reforestation.” That means: more tree species, more mixed forest. But new trees can not only make forests more climate-safe, they can also combat climate change in concrete terms. Germany’s Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner has announced a reforestation programme worth half a billion euros. According to the Minister, the forest was a lung and a decisive climate protector.
A study by ETH Zurich shows that with consistent reforestation, two thirds of man-made CO2 could be absorbed from the air worldwide. The potential area for reforestation in the world would thus amount to 900 million hectares. More than half of this forest area could be created in six countries alone. A message that initially sounded sensational. But scientists criticized that their colleagues in Zurich had been too optimistic. The reason: If forests extract more CO2 from the atmosphere, other reserves, such as the oceans, release more carbon dioxide.
But despite the supposedly exaggerated presentation from Zurich: “Reforestation is an idea that Stephan Braun also believes makes sense. Nevertheless, he sees a decisive problem: “First you have to tell me where these new forests should be.” Settlements and agriculture would need a lot of space. There wouldn’t be much left for new forests. In the area around Sinzig there is also no room for new areas. First of all, the damaged areas would have to be rebuilt.
A forest in state of emergency
Back in Stephan Braun’s office in Sinzig. Files and documents pile up on the desk. Between the papers, the range of the forest problem almost seems to disappear. But Braun emphasizes: “I would agree that we have a climate emergency in the forest due to a lack of capacity.” He is thus supporting a new initiative by the German Forestry Federation (BDF). We might have to get used to the dry climate, politics couldn’t change that either: “Fortunately, politics isn’t yet responsible for the rain. Instead, reforestation must be promoted in the medium term.”