Rewilding Forests in National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald

The German National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald lets its forests develop freely. The objective is to reach a natural tree species composition and to give the forest room and time to do so on its own. The National Park management also decided to give a third of the trails going through the protected area back to nature.

Non-intervention to tackle remaining monocultures

The National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald was only established three years ago. But first results of the Park’s aspired objective to leave the forests to evolve naturally are already visible. The tree species composition of the area’s young trees already shows a higher diversity. The management aims to push back spruce in favour of beech and and downy birch. Already about 83% of young trees are beech, according to the ministry for environment and forestry of Rhineland-Palatinate. Whereas only 46% of older trees are beech. Spruce just constitutes for about 15% of young trees and around 39% of older trees.

Beech would be the natural tree cover of the National Park Hansrück-Hochwald.

Thomas Griese
Secretary of State for Environment, Germany

This development of a more natural tree species composition is supposed to decrease the risk of bark beetle infestations. Infested and fallen spruce trees as well as fallen trees from storms are left as dead wood. The resulting high amount of dead wood is a unique feature of the protected area and offers rare habitats for numerous species depending on dead wood.

To enable the bogs, marshes and floodplains of the park to restore their natural species compositions, the park management implemented temporal active restoration measures. These measures will be finished this year and mainly included planned clearing of spruce and the closing of old drainage ditches. Restoring measures on the Götzenbach, a creek running through the National Park, are planned as well.

Giving trails back to nature

This year the park management starts with the ambitious objective to decrease the number of trails going through the area. Within the course of the next ten years about a third of the trails should be left for natural rewilding. Plants can overgrow them and creeks or other water bodies will not be stopped when overflowing these trails. This project aims on re-connecting habitats that have been cut up by these trails and enable the restoration of a biotop network.

Visitors of the National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald will still have numerous possibilities to experience the rewilding nature. A 90 km route around the National Park and two extensive trails through the park offer a true forest feeling. Thomas Griese reasons the decisions to decrease the trail network in the National Park, “we have to keep in mind that the main objective of large protected areas is not tourism but the protection and development of natural and cultural landscapes.”

Nevertheless, the National Park plays an important role for the sustainable development of the whole region. About 40 gastronomy businesses already fulfill the criteria to be a “National Park-Partner”. This proves that sustainable tourism is getting more and more important in the region.

Development of Wilderness in Europe

The decisions of the National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald to enable natural forest development and connect cut-up habitats are an important step to the rewilding of Europe. According to the Wilderness Continuum of Roderick Nash an area can move up or down along this continuum depending on the amount of human intervention. The decisions of the park’s management to keep their hands off, or to only actively support restoration for a limited time, and to let nature develop on its own, moves the area closer to Wilderness. This means that over time this area has the potential to become Wilderness and to be part of the European Wilderness Network.

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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.

Motto: SYSTEMIC FOREST ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT INSTEAD OF WOOD FACTORY

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