The controversy of sanitary logging

Many still think that although natural processes are self-propelled, nature still needs human intervention and maintenance. In this multi-part series, we will explore the topic of sanitary logging, its function, harms, current practice all across Europe and proposed solutions to ensure a healthy forest ecosystem in the long term.

Please also read: EU forest in danger

What is sanitary logging?

Sanitary logging is standardised forestry management operation, defined also in the forest legislation (e.g. Forest Law, Nature Conservation Law, Water and Soil Protection Law, Environment Law, Wildlife Protection Law, etc.) to prevent or minimise the impact of natural disturbances such as insects, fungus, windstorms and forest fire. Sanitary logging, is often a proper management tool in certain situations that originate back to several decades ago. Bound by legal requirements, sanitary logging is demanded as a solution to natural disturbances. However, it is also misused as a coverage for commercial and illegal activities, practiced in several Central and Eastern European countries, such as Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Romania and also Ukraine. Based on solid scientific evidence, let’s explore the forms of harm sanitary logging may bring to forest ecosystems.

Sanitary logging in response to bark beetle outbreaks?

Bark beetle subfamily contains about 6000 species of beetles, such as the very active spruce bark beetle. These creatures can have significant impact on trees. However, most of them live in dead or already dying wood. They lay their eggs in the inner bark, then for the larvae to hatch and eat the plant tissue. The tree needs sap to defend itself by inundating the larvae. Therefore during periods of drought, when forests are under significant environmental stress, huge outbreaks can take place. The size of the outbreaks are much larger in the areas of the conventional forest management approach, that favours the production of even-aged, single-species stands. It’s important to remember however, that bark beetle occurence in forests is perfectly natural, since the spruce bark beetle is a native species that has been around here for millennia.

So what caused bark beetle outbreaks to take place in such an extent? Humans. Man-made factors have contributed to the majority of bark beetle outbreaks. Increasing spruce abundance through the plantation of hundreds of thousands of identical spruce in place of logged deciduous forest. Also, climate change causes increasingly dry and therefore unfavourable conditions for spruce to grow. The third factor is the large-scale drainage in the 20th century, which caused the water table of forests to lower significantly. The combination of these factors has caused consecutive dry years and therefore increased vulnerability of spruce for bark beetle attacks.

However, what we see as large-scale death is only the response of forests to make their way into a more natural and healthy mixture of tree species. Moreover, research indicates that about 80% of the bark beetle population would need to be removed e.g. by sanitary logging to reduce their impact on the forest. Nevertheless, even this drastic strategy would only reduce bark beetle impact in the short-term. Needless to say this is not achievable.

Sanitary logging in favour of habitats and biodiversity?

Normally, after the bark beetle outbreak, the leftover dead wood creates habitats for a great amount of species. Forest stands usually regenerate quickly and naturally. However, as it happened in many European locations, where spruce forest was artificially planted and logged, heavy-duty machinery has caused serious environmental damages. The soil profile was damaged (compacted, eroded) that prevented the process of natural regeneration of trees.

It has been scientifically proven that sanitary logging reduces biodiversity. Dead wood-dependent species, including several that are endangered and EU-wide protected, depend on the abundance of dead wood for a certain part of their life cycle. These species are very often extremely rare or even extinct particularly in a commercially planted mono-aged spruce forests. The list includes several beetles, such as the Hermit beetle and the Wrinkled bark beetle, as well as various bird species, such as the Pygmy owl and the Three-toed woodpecker.

Furthermore, studies have shown, how bark beetle outbreaks contribute to biodiversity increase, creating favorable dead wood habitats. This highlighs that the spruce bark beetle is a keystone species in forests, helping to speed up the process of transforming artificial spruce monoculture to multi-age, multi-species and multi-structure forest. Research also proved that this kind of forest is much more resistant to the wide variety of the natural disturbances and emerging temperature extremes due to climate overheating. Kalkalpen National Park, hosting Kalkalpen Wilderness, is a role model for restoring Wilderness in mountain forest. As a unique initiative, the forestry regulation ordering sanitary logging in case of a bark beetle outbreak has been abolished, creating perfect conditions to monitor unharmed ecosystem dynamics.

In the following part of the series, we will examine how sanitary logging is practiced to support the economic function of forests. Stay tuned!

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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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