Germany invented “scientific” forestry. But a huge dieback triggered by climate change has ignited a fierce debate over how the nation should manage its trees
SCHWENDA, GERMANY—Last summer, Friederike and Jörg von Beyme stood on a bramble-covered, Sun-blasted slope outside this small town in eastern Germany. Just 4 years ago, the hillside, part of a nearly 500-hectare forest the couple bought in 2002, was green and shady, covered in tall, neatly arranged Norway spruce trees the couple planned to cut and sell.
During January 2018, however, a powerful storm felled many of the trees. Then, over the next 3 years, a record drought hit Germany and much of Central Europe, stressing the spruces that still stood. The back-to-back disasters enabled bark-boring beetles that had been munching on dead trees to jump to drought-weakened ones. Beetle populations exploded. In just 3 weeks, towering spruces that had seemed healthy were dead.
The von Beymes salvaged what they could, rushing to log and sell the dead and diseased trees. But thousands of other forest owners did the same, causing the timber market to collapse. The couple’s piles of logs were worth less than what it had cost to cut and stack them. Now, they don’t expect to earn a profit from logging spruces for 20 years. “We have a big forest now with big problems,” Jörg von Beyme says.
The von Beymes are far from alone. Since 2018, more than 300,000 hectares of Germany’s trees—more than 2.5% of the country’s total forest area—have died because of beetles and drought fueled by a warming climate. The massive dieback has shocked the public. And it has raised hard questions about how a country renowned for inventing “scientific” forestry more than 3 centuries ago should manage forests so they can continue to produce wood and protect ecosystems in the face of destablizing climate shifts.
Everyone agrees that new approaches are needed, but no one, it seems, can agree on what those should be. Some advocates want Germany’s government and forest industry to stop promoting the widespread planting of commercially valuable trees such as Norway spruces, and instead encourage landowners to allow forests to regenerate on their own. Others say that to meet economic, environmental, and climate goals, Germany must double down on tree planting—but using more resilient varieties, including some barely known in Germany today.
The stakes are high: Germany’s forest products sector generates some €170 billion annually and employs more than 1.1 million people. If its wood supplies dwindle, pressure could grow to log forests elsewhere around the world. Declining forests could also imperil efforts to replace building materials that generate huge emissions of greenhouse gases, such as concrete and steel, with potentially climate-friendlier wood.
The disagreements are often fierce, with the opposing sides trading insults in the media and even holding competing forest summits. “The intensity of the debate,” says ecologist Christopher Reyer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “is surprising for everybody.”
IT’S NO EXAGGERATION to say modern industrial forestry was invented in Germany. In the early 1700s, mining official Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who lived not far from where the von Beymes live today, became alarmed by devastating timber shortages caused by demand from mining and smelting. In response, he penned a 1713 treatise proposing that forests be managed sustainably. Wood harvests should be limited to what the land could produce, von Carlowitz wrote, and trees should be assiduously replanted to ensure a future supply. (Of course, Indigenous people around the world had been applying similar ideas for millennia.)
German forests started to recover as landowners adopted the approach. And Germany’s scientific approach to forestry—planting fast-growing species in neat rows, perfectly spaced for maximum timber production—became an international model. After World War II, with Germany in ruins and Allied nations demanding shipments of timber for reparations, foresters doubled down on von Carlowitz’s vision. Areas where deciduous trees such as beech and oak would have grown naturally were planted in monocultures of fast-growing evergreen spruce and pine. The trees were so essential to Germany’s economy that they became known as the brotbaums or “bread trees.”…
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