By Reinhard Osteroth ///
Germany is a land of forests. A third of this densely populated industrial country is covered by woodland. There is 11.1 million hectares or almost 43,000 square miles of it – an area that has remained constant since the beginning of the 16th century. Hard to believe? Just list the most famous and largest German forests and the figure immediately becomes plausible. Density populated urban and industrial regions are interspersed with great islands of green, whether it be the Black Forest or the Harz, the Fichtel Mountain Range, the Thuringian or Palatinate Forest. The largest continuously forested area in Central Europe is the Bavarian Forest, which furthermore links up with the Bohemian Forest in the Czech Republic. This is also where you will find Germany’s largest national park, covering an area of over 46 square miles. It too merges with the Czech national park across the common border. Together they form the largest forest reserve in Central Europe.
At least 60 percent of German forests are covered by conifers, particularly spruce and pine. But among the deciduous trees it is not the once so highly praised “German oak” that holds first place, but the beech. Extensive beech forests, where the sunlight plays between the smooth, silver-grey trunks, are among Germany’s most beautiful landscapes. In the spring of 2011, UNESCO awarded World Natural Heritage status to five near-natural German beech forests full of gigantic old trees. These forests cover approx. 17 square miles. One of them is the 2.3-square-mile Grumsin Forest in the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve just an hour’s drive north of Berlin in the south of the rural district of Uckermark. Visiting the Grumsin Forest is almost like time travel: you really notice that the Ice Age has left its mark here as you hike through a craggy terrain of hills and hollows. It could hardly have been better protected from clearance over the centuries, with bogs, ponds and lakes between the trees – a natural monument of wood and water. But it is not so pleasant for humans here all year round: mosquitoes attack the wayfarer as if to make sure that the reserve’s recent UNESCO fame doesn’t attract too many visitors.
The United Nations declared 2011 “The International Year of the Forests” to draw global attention to the immense importance of these habitats for our planet and humanity. Forests play an essential role in the Earth’s climatic and weather system. They regulate the natural water cycle and air exchange, they are enormous carbon stores and habitats of irreplaceable biodiversity in both fauna and flora. And more people are economically dependent on the forests than most of us think.
Public interest in the forests is high anyway in Germany. The Müritz National Park, for example, attracts over half a million visitors a year. In this International Year of the Forests their curiosity is catered for with a wealth of additional forest experiences. 5,000 events are taking place all over Germany under the aegis of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection: hiking trips, guided tours of the forest, concerts, tree plantings. To close the year, the German Historical Museum in Berlin is opening an exhibition on 2 December, 2011, called: “The German Forest – A Cultural History”, showing the world of the forest in literature and painting, a staged and at times overloaded “ideal picture of nature” (open until 4 March, 2012).
The Germans are probably so forest-conscious because they use the “green lung” extensively for recreation and sport. According to a survey, 50 percent of people in Germany spend time in the forest at least once every two weeks. Whether it’s jogging, hiking or strolling, they seek relaxation here from the hectic daily grind. What scientists would refer to the unique forest climate, they simply call “getting some fresh air”: protection against sun and noise, a pleasant level of humidity and much more.
Forestry and timber are among the largest sectors of the German economy. A headcount of about 1.2 million and an annual turnover of 170 billion euros are astonishing figures. Germany is among the most densely wooded countries in Europe. Every second, the trees here produce the equivalent of a wooden cube with an edge length of 1.55 metres. German forests are not overused, and growth exceeds the harvest, so that reserves are still available for wood-based power generation. The ways in which the forests are used could soon change significantly. Wood is at the focus of attention, particularly in the context of climate change. Its increased use in construction, energy generation in biomass power stations, wood-fired heating and many consumer goods can and should help improve the carbon balance. As an energy source, wood offers all the advantages of a renewable resource.
Forests, both in Germany and worldwide, will be among the important working areas of the future. However, trees have a different timescale from humans; they grow over decades and centuries. This means that fundamental decisions have to be made today. Wood has become a complicated subject. The best cure that can be recommended for those who “can’t see the wood for the trees” is to seek relaxation and orientation by taking an extensive walk – between the tree trunks beneath the protective roof of a beech forest.
(Article edited for length. Read the complete story)
Photo © Arminia