Species are disappearing, so is Wilderness

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published recently their alarming Living Planet Report 2018. One of the things that stood out most, was the Living Planet Index. The Index shows that 16 704 populations, representing more than 4 000 species, decreased on average 60% in size over the last 50 years. In South America the populations decreased even more drastically, with 89%. The message is clear, and worrying. As humans watch, nature is disappearing in front of our eyes. The biggest driver of change is us. Human impact on climate, land use and hunting have dramatic results.

Please also read: Defining and protecting Wilderness in Europe

Fear for climate change

Dr. Nikolaus Szucsich from the Natural History Museum in Vienna studied the vertebrate declines in Austria. His recently published findings indicate that over the last 30 years almost 70% of the vertebrates disappeared in Austria. The cause is clear: humans. Meanwhile, another recent study amongst Austrian citizens showed that 60% of the people are afraid for climate change. Looking at age-specific groups, a staggering 75% of under-30s fear for their future. The numbers are clear, people worry about climate change. The youth is even more concerned than the older generation, logically.

The Barcode of Life

A large group of scientists are working on the ‘International Barcode of Life‘ project. In this project they aim to record 5,3 million DNA sequences from over half a million different species in the first phase. With this information, it is possible to detect faster which species face threats for continued survival. As a result, politicians and decision makers can act quicker to dedicate resources for conservation actions.

Disappearing global Wilderness

But are these conservation actions going to solve the challenges? Over the last 100 years, humans have modified more than three quarters of the planet for their own use. The percentage of modified land used to be only 15%, and is now 77% of land and 87% of the sea, directly affected by people’s actions. This means that pristine forests, rivers, and plains are disappearing at a fast rate. This also dramatically affects the last remaining Wilderness on our planet. A study in Current Biology from Watson et al., (2016) summarised this very clearly.

We demonstrate alarming losses comprising one-tenth (3.3 million km2) of global Wilderness areas over the last two decades, particularly in the Amazon (30%) and central Africa (14%). We assess increases in the protection of Wilderness over the same time frame and show that these efforts are failing to keep pace with the rate of Wilderness loss, which is nearly double the rate of protection. Our findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of Wilderness and the unprecedented threats they face and to underscore urgent large-scale, multifaceted actions needed to maintain them.

The lost area of global Wilderness is bigger than the size of India. And the loss continues to grow, as we are not fast enough in ‘Protecting the Last of the Wild‘. This is also because international policy frameworks, such as the UN Strategic Plan for Biodiversity or the Paris Climate Agreement, fail to address the value and contribution of intact and untouched ecosystems. Therefore, the supported efforts made to protect Wilderness cannot keep up with the rate that humans destroy Wilderness.

Too late to act?

Important to mention is that our Wild Earth becomes more fragmented every day. The isolated fragments will impact exchange of species, individuals and DNA, and thereby biodiversity as a whole. In fact, we find 94% of the remaining global Wilderness in just 20 countries, with 70% in the top 5 countries. This week the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity comes together in Egypt. Representatives of nations, organisations like IUCN, NGOs and scientists will formulate a new strategic plan for the protection of biodiversity after 2020. Here, the decision makers must include mandate targets for Wilderness conservation on a global scale. This will allow funding of Wilderness conservation actions to become easier.

Disappearing forever

As WWF’s Living Planet Report shows, 60% of the animals disappeared in just 50 years. Wilderness in disappearing just like the animals. And similar to species extinction, disappeared Wilderness is essentially irreversible. Once humans disturb Wilderness, it will never fully recover to its original state.

We need to secure Wilderness for ourselves, for nature, for our planet. You can also make a contribution and support the work of the European Wilderness Society.

Read the full Living Planet Report 2018 from WWF below:

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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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