Forest fire in Germany and its aftermath

A recent visit to Northern Germany by the Western Colorado University and European Wilderness Society hosted by Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, and communal foresters, highlighted the complex challenges that foresters currently face in the aftermath of forest fires in the age of climate change. Foresters must balance economics and biodiversity conservation in both the short and long term. It is even more complex when it is necessary to plan for centuries into the future, when you are unsure what impact climate change will have had on the landscape.

6 months after the large forest fire in Germany

6 months ago, the area of Treuenbrietzen, Brandenburg was hit by a large forest fire. What was ignited on August 23 2018 by a heatwave, quickly became one of the largest forest fires in the last years. More than 600 firefighters were at times trying to stop the ground fire from spreading into villages blocking a rail line and a provincial road. More than 500 people had to be evacuated from their homes and the smell was noticeable in nearby Potsdam.

Infrared imaging of the forest fire Treuenbrietzen
The monoculture conifer forests of Brandenburg are highly threatened by climate change
images from the fire department Bad Belzig.
The infrared image of the Treuenbrietzen forest fire Polizei Brandenburg

This case shows the challenges modern forestry faces with the increased threats caused by drought and floods due to climate change. The devastation on such a large scale is something that we will see more and more in Germany and other parts of Europe.

Vlado Vancura
Deputy Chairman and forester

Forest experts are expecting forest fires for some years now and warn that these will become the norm. The monocultures of the 80-100 year old conifer forest typical for Brandenburg are especially susceptible to such fires. This is due to the lack of forest diversity and the dry environment. 10 years ago the snow during winter provided some humidity, but local foresters informed that in the last 10 years the region has not seen any snow. In fact all year round, there has been dangerously low precipitation. This coupled with the increase temperatures and the monoculture make these forest prone to burn or be victims to storms.

Experts surveying the damage

A team of forest experts from Western Colorado University together with the researchers of the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development and the forest experts of the European Wilderness Society visited the area a few days ago and saw the damages the fire caused.

After one fire is before the next fire

What stunned all attending experts even more, was the fact that local private foresters started a timber salvage operation. This operation is removing almost all of the fire scorched timber from the area. Economically this makes sense in the short run, but will cause serious headaches for the future. This is because the area is sandy, and the removal of the timber has now exposed the ground soil. Sandstorms and dust will become common here.

Replanting conifers – a questionable proposition

The real challenge is the question with what tree species to replant the devastated area. Conifers are economically the most likely, but conifers in Northern Germany under climate change will not be the best proposition. This is because conifers will likely suffer the most. Looking at some of the other local species that naturally grow, a mixed forest is the best proposition. For example, beech, European oak and other broadleaf trees would have a higher chance of surviving the drastic climate changes in this part of Europe.

Coifers are under extreme pressure everywhere in the world due to climate change. Diverse stands including broadleaf trees are expected to increase forest resilience to the effects of climate change.

Jonathan Coop
Professor at Western Colorado University

CleverForest: Monitoring the self recovery of a fire damaged forest

There are some areas where the timber cannot be removed due to munitions from WW2 still in the ground. In one of these areas the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development will start a long term monitoring project, CleverForest, to evaluate the positive effects of leaving the timber biomass standing, to protect the soil from wind and rain erosion. This is a joint project between the university and the city of Treuenbrietzen. The project will involve collaboration with international colleagues to make use of existing forest fire management knowledge, for example this current visit of European Wilderness Society to north Germany!

We are glad to have the opportunity to monitor the self recovery of a fire damaged forest. We will apply and compare different treatments in post-fire management, and hope to learn a lot from this to better consult foresters. Not only will we minimise fire risk, but also learn how to replant fire stricken areas to be more climate change resilient.

Pierre Ibisch
Professor, Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development

As part of an Austrian financed forestry and climate change project, European Wilderness Society will work with foresters, and will draw conclusions about this visit to apply to the current forestry situation in Austria.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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