How climate change impacts forests

During the Wilderness Academy Days, which took place in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Lungau, there was a special session on climate change impact on forests. It was a great event with many international experienced and new Wilderness Advocates. Over the next days, we will reflect on the many inspiring presentations and keynote speeches.

Forest development in times of climate change

Prof. Dr. Pierre Ibisch from Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development and the Centre for Econics and Ecosystem Management, was one of the keynote speakers during the Wilderness Academy Days. During his many years of forest research, he has made valuable observations and studies. Especially the impact of climate change on forest development in different parts of the world, indicate sometimes alarming scenarios.

As summers are getting warmer, Ibisch has observed how young trees, both native and exotic species, are struggling to survive. Last summer, Germany was facing one of the warmest summers in the last years. As a result, the number and severity of forest fires also increased. A big forest fire in Brandenburg for example, resulted in an ecological disaster. Ibisch also studied the effects of different forest types on changing climates. Interesting findings showed a relationship between the mean temperature within the forest and the forest biomass. The higher the density of living trees, the cooler the temperature is in the forest, during hot summer days. The cooler temperatures enable trees to be more productive. As a result, forests become more resilient to higher temperatures. It is thus very important to allow natural development in forests to increase the biomass density in the age of climate change.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

Changing nature in Majella

The impact of climate change is visible not only in Brandenburg, but in many places. Giuseppe Marcantonio from Majella National Park, presented during the Wilderness Academy Days on the changing vegetation due to climate change. Within Majella National Park lies Majella Wilderness, long-time partner of the European Wilderness Network.

Through a global monitoring network, Majella surveys permanent plots in alpine areas on vegetation change. An important observation is that plant species’ distributions are climbing in altitude. Not only plant communities change, as Marcantonio showed. Interactions between animals also impact the forest development. Majella is home to several wolf packs that hunt wild boar as primary food source. As a result, the wild boar tend to stay outside of the wolf pack territories, allowing forest to rejuvenate more easily.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

Wolf and wild boar relations

The effects of wolf on wild boar populations is in fact even more complicated, as Vlado Trulik presented during the Wilderness Academy Days. A study from Slovakia shows how established wolf packs keep the outbreaks of Classical Swine Fever under control. By taking out the weakest and sick wild boar, wolves prevent spreading of the virus. As a result, the forest and forest fauna become healthier as well.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

Multiperspective view on forest biodiversity

The impacts of climate change on forest biodiversity are diverse and often still poorly understood. Due to different management strategies in Europe, the effects are more difficult to identify. As Vlado Vancura presented during the Wilderness Academy Days, forest management differs a lot between the Alps and Carpathian Mountains for example.

Therefore, as part of the project ‘Multiperspective view on biodiversity in forests’ a group of international forest experts will visit several site in Europe to witness and observe different forest management strategies. One of them will be in the Slovakian Tatra Mountains. The Tatra Mountains are faced with severe logging practices due to bark beetle control and windfall damage. These result from changing climate, rising temperatures, and increasing weather extremes.

And not only do we see these effects in Europe, as John Hausdoerffer presented during the Wilderness Academy Days. The US has been facing 30% larger forest fires than in the previous decade. Only in California in 2019, already more than 400 000 hectares burned down. And with damaged forests, the bark beetle is thriving. As Hausdoerffer’s stated, experts estimate that the next 10 years, bark beetles will kill 100 000 trees per day.

Find the abstracts of these and other presentations that were held during the Wilderness Academy Days below!

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Sign the Open Letter to the German Ministry

Join more than 70 forest experts demanding a radical change in the German forest management system.

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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