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The Netherlands Will Increase Its Forests By a Quarter

To slash the country’s carbon footprint, the Dutch are going on a tree-planting binge.

A pond on the edge of the Netherlands' Veluwe Forest (Johan Wieland/Flickr)

The Netherlands currently shares with Ireland the title of Europe’s least wooded country—trees currently cover just 11 percent of its surface area. But following an announcement Monday, Mainland Europe’s most densely populated country should start getting a lot leafier. Holland’s State Forestry Commission, the Staatsbosbeheer, just unveiled a plan to boost the country’s forested area by as much as 25 percent. Over the next thirty years, the country will get 100,000 hectares (386 square miles) of new woodland as part of a scheme to both reduce carbon emissions and boost domestic timber production.

By North American standards, these numbers are relatively modest—the new forests would be roughly a third of the size of Rhode Island. But the notoriously tree-deprived Dutch are trying to re-grow the forest canopy of one of the most heavily developed, heavily exploited patches on Earth. The Netherlands has 394 inhabitants per square kilometer, widely dispersed over a sprawling net of small and medium-sized cities that are themselves surrounded by land heavily exploited for agriculture. So where are they going to put all those trees?

Thankfully, Dutch planning has managed to set aside a few less-developed spaces here and there. The largest of these is the so-called Green Heart, a core of mainly unbuilt land that forms a donut-like hole in the center of the Randstad, the ring-shaped conurbation that includes the country’s four largest cities (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the Hague, and Utrecht). Elsewhere, there is a large tract of peaty land under cultivation on the German border in the province of Drenthe; its poor agricultural productivity left it largely empty until (partly forced, penal) settlement in the 19th century. To make up the rest, the Netherlands’ new tree canopy will have to form a patchwork across the country, adding green fringes to existing woodlands and nibbling into agricultural land.

Funding the future forests would require a €3 billion investment. Eventually, harvesting the timber could provide revenue, but the forests will also need to pay their way as leisure sites as well. Proposers also estimate that the new forests could reduce CO2 emissions by four megatons annually, a substantial drop that could well be worth the price.

Couched within the plan is another bright idea. As well as increasing the extent of existing woodlands, the Netherlands could meet almost a third of its carbon target by creating temporary green areas. These might be ex-industrial lands or fallow fields, dedicated to forestry for a generation’s tree growth before being handed back for agricultural use or development.

Managed carefully, this could allow the Netherlands to create a system of planned obsolescence where areas of land could be temporarily greened in tandem with development. Agricultural land next to a major construction site outside city limits, for example, could be forested during a period when there was major disruption, with fast-growing trees forming a noise and dust screen. Granted, this wouldn’t create a permanent leafy oasis, but by not earmarking land permanently for forestry, it could potentially open up sites where woodlands would otherwise be unfeasible.

Taken as a whole, the plan would do more than reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Holland is the kind of place where city joins almost seamlessly to city and roofs are an expected feature of most horizons; the effect can induce a creeping sense of claustrophobia. Foresting parts of the landscape with areas expressly designed to appeal to city-dwellers seeking relative solitude and peace could help make this famously tidy and livable country a bit more wild.

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