The German army is being enlisted in the effort to clear diseased woods and make way for new growth. Annegret Hilse/Reuters

“Every missing tree is a missing comrade-in-arms against climate change,” agriculture minister Julia Klöckner says.

Germany has a massive plan to rescue its forests.

At Berlin’s “national forest summit” on Wednesday, Germany’s federal and regional governments promised €800 million ($878 million) to replant and renew Germany’s woodlands. The program represents a national commitment—the government has even enlisted the army’s help—to clearing dead wood and replanting over 440,000 acres of trees.

The plan also reveals some worrying truths about the state of Germany’s forests, which cover about a third of the country. But the woods haven’t been in such a perilous condition since record-keeping began. Many of the forests are now in a very bad state indeed, severely beleaguered in recent years by unusually hot, dry weather and rampant beetle infestations.

According to satellite monitoring by experts from Munich’s Technical University, which assesses woodland vitality through its depth of greenness, a third of the country’s woodlands are now in a very poor state. Hot, dry weather is the chief culprit. In 2018, Germany saw its highest temperatures on record, as well as a drought that continued from February well into the autumn. Trees can recover quite swiftly from a single year’s drought, but 2018’s dry spell was preceded by years that were also hotter and drier than average, and succeeded in 2019 by a summer that was scarcely cooler. The country’s forests haven’t really had a chance to bounce back.

This has left the trees especially vulnerable. According to news magazine Die Zeit, the build-up of dry, dead wood contributed to the equivalent of 3,300 soccer fields being lost to fire in 2018 alone. Even worse have been attacks by bark beetles, which weakened trees struggle to fend off as they are too dry to produce the extra resin necessary to help shield their bark from being eaten. This doesn’t just destroy wildlife habitat and spoil the landscape, it makes it much harder for Germany to meet its own carbon-reduction goals. As Agriculture minister Julia Klöckner told the forest summit this week: “Every missing tree is a missing comrade-in-arms against climate change.”

The huge injection of funding—€547 from Germany’s federal government and the rest from the 16 states—should help the forests heal. Exactly how this money should be spent, and along what lines replanting should be conducted, remains a matter for debate.

Some things are fairly clear. A quarter of Germany’s forests consist of plantings of a single species—typically spruce used for the timber industry. Monocultural woodlands are especially vulnerable to disease. The government thus believes that these areas should be replanted as mixed forests, where a wider variety of species makes the environment hardier, and means that a single threat is less likely to destroy an entire area in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, much diseased wood will have to be removed, but the overall intention is to leave plenty in place if possible, so that the dead wood can act as a food source and habitat for insects. One type of fauna that will be getting less encouragement, however, is deer. The plan is to encourage (already legal) hunting of the animals in the short term, so that there are fewer mouths to nibble away at young trees’ growth until the recovery is well under way.

This new push isn’t the only national reforestation plan currently in preparation in Northern Europe. Last year, the British government announced a plan to recover vast swathes of Northern England’s woodlands. Germany nonetheless deserves credit for pushing for action in the moment. While Britain’s proposal merely hoped to shape forestry’s direction of travel over decades, without securing funding for every stage of the project, Germany’s efforts are focused directly on the next few years, with a major operation underfoot in time for the next growing season in spring.

Some, however, want to go further than this. Politicians from the Green and Social Democratic parties have proposed that funding be granted only to forest owners with an ecological focus, who concentrate on nature preservation first and timber production second. Meanwhile the Germany Forestry Association (AGDW) suggested a full €2.3 billion of investment is needed, and proposed the introduction of an industrial pollution tax whose proceeds would go directly toward forest planting. It’s unclear how many of these suggestions will be adopted, but a consensus seems to be emerging that action will have to continue on far beyond the plan launched Wednesday.

There’s also the broader question of exactly what a healthy German forest might look like in the future. Experts wants the replanted trees to be both naturally occurring indigenous species and hardy, resilient trees that can withstand hotter, drier weather. It is still, however, not entirely clear which native species will prove to be the most robust in a changing climate.

Germany has finally begun decisive action to turn around the long run of bad years that the country’s forests have suffered. Fixing on exactly what the restored forests will look like—and how they will fare under stress—looks set nonetheless to be a work in progress for many years to come.

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