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The forests of Central Europe: new perspectives.

Europe is considered the fountainhead of the scientific principles on which American forest management was developed. There, as well as in this country, foresters today are changing their viewpoints on how best to sustain healthy, diverse forest ecosystems. The evolution of philosophies regarding forests that have been managed for centuries should hold a lesson or two for American foresters, who now find themselves buffeted by unprecedented change. This article was adapted by AI Sample, director of AFA's Forest Policy Center, from a lecture the late Dr. Plochmann gave while professor of forest history at the University of Munich.

If its evolution had been left to nature, central Europe today would be a wooded land with over 90 percent of its area under forest cover, consisting of temperate hardwood forests, mainly beech and oak; mixed hardwood/Scotch pine forests; and mountainous coniferous forests composed primarily of Norway spruce and European fir. Hardwoods clearly dominated central European forests, with an estimated proportion of 80 to 85 percent. Since the beginning of agriculture in central Europe 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, about two-thirds of the forest area has been cleared for other types of land use. In many areas the use has changed at least once between farms and forests. Because of the nature of the clearing process, which peaked between the years 1000 and 1300, the forests were removed from the most productive sites and were preserved mainly where no other type of use with higher returns was possible. These long periods of utilization and management have had great impact on the composition, structure, and productivity of the remaining forests. Not one acre of forest has been left untouched, and thus not one acre of virgin forest still exists. All central European forests are manmade.


At the end of the 18th century, central European forests were in bad shape. In addition to supplying timber for a rapidly growing population and economy, they were being exploited for the export of large quantifies of logs to the Netherlands and United Kingdom and to provide domestic farms with leaf fodder for livestock and litter for stables.

They were also habitat for the large game populations that were strictly protected by despotic territorial rulers who had the sole fight to hunt. For 150 years, the forests were overcut, overgrazed, overraked, and overbrowsed. From the end of the Thirty Years' War (1648) to the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1796), the forests were exhausted and degraded.

One critic during the period claimed that on 10,000 acres of a certain forest district, no tree could be found strong enough to hang a forester from it. Only the political, social, and economic reforms in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars opened the opportunity to rebuild the ravaged forests. Other factors contributed as well:

* Forestry had developed as a new scientific field at universities and academies.

* The newly formed central European states created modern and effective forest services fully responsible for the management of the forest.

* Modern forms of agriculture reduced the reliance on forests for livestock grazing and bedding.

* The feudal hunting monopoly that previously prevailed was abolished.

As the rehabilitation of forests began in the 1820s, central European foresters came to the conclusion that Scotch pine, Norway spruce, black locust, white pine, and--after 1880--Douglas-fir promised much higher returns than the natural hardwood forests could.

And so the rehabilitation of the central European forests was achieved mainly with an early form of plantation management. The hardwood thickets and hardwood stands within conifer forests, comprising around 50 percent of the forest area at that time, were cleared away and replaced by conifer plantations. Today, not even 3 percent of the hardwood stands are left.

In addition to converting to softwood monocultures, rotations were shortened, and old forms of silviculture, like single tree selection, were replaced by clearcutting.

The results were amazing. Rehabilitation was completed in less than a century. Standing volume, annual increment, and the flow of harvested timber increased remarkably-even doubled and tripled. On the whole, a more or less even-age class distribution was reached. This success is the primary basis for the fame of German forestry.

The price paid, however, was a fundamental change in the composition of the forest. From 1820 to 1960, it shifted from about two-thirds hardwoods and one-third conifers to exactly the reverse. On about 40 percent of the forested area, naturally mixed stands were replaced by monocultures. Of the stands established between 1900 and 1950, conifers constitute more than two-thirds of the forest.


After several decades of exploring new perspectives on forestry, our experience may be a useful element in the continuing debate over the management of North American forests.

In the decade between 1950 and 1960, fundamental social changes began to take shape. Central Europe is one of the most densely populated areas of the globe. Average density in the Federal Republic of Germany is approximately 650 people per square mile, compared with about 56 per square mile in the United States. Germany is about the same size as Oregon, with more than 20 times the population.

The economic boom during the 1950s raised the standard of living, increased mobility and leisure time, and deeply transformed the way of life and people's behavior. With growing wealth and urbanization, it was feared that Germany would overexploit its natural resources and destroy its natural heritage.

Ixn the 1960s, forestry came under growing public criticism. The central underlying issue was that forestry oriented solely toward the maximization of profit could no longer meet the expectations and needs of society. The criticism came mainly from those concerned with recreation, nature preservation, landscape protection, and protection of water resources.

Central Europeans, and especially Germans, have a particular emotional connection to forests and trees. Forests are for them the living image of nature. This is the only "nature" that is legally open for their recreational use 365 days a year and 24 hours a day whether that forest is in public or private ownership. And they make use of that right of entrance. In the Federal Republic of Germany, about 70 percent of the public participate in forest recreation not only in county, state, and federal parks but in private forests as well.

These frequent visitors complained that forests as monocultures were too monotonous; that they lack diversity in composition, structure, and density; and that there are not enough old and big trees in monocultures.

Nature preservation had always been the domain of foresters. But now forestry and foresters have come under fire from conservationists who claim that the change in forest composition--the large areas of monocultures, the short rotations, the site preparation, fertilization, and pesticides--not only changed the character of the landscape but led to the endangerment and extinction of many species of flora and fauna. In particular, the lack of old and decaying trees, snags, and dead timber in the stands--nightmares for hygiene-conscious foresters--is a significant problem in wildlife habitat and species protection. It might be said that we in Germany have our ow! problems as well. Conser-vationists demanded that large forest areas be set aside and that the rest be managed in a nature-friendly way.

Finally, criticism arose from within the profession itself. Forest management to maximize economic value produces standard-quality industrial timber. But that product line will never be able to compete. Either our competitors will grow more fiber, or they will produce it much more cheaply. We can survive only by concentrating on the production of large-diameter, high-quality timber. Ironically, the faster the supply of this type of timber is exploited worldwide, the more competitive our position becomes. The price of high-quality timber today is already two to 10 times higher than that of average quality.

We also made some ecological mistakes. We used conifers quite often in large monocultures where they were not indigenous or did not fit the site. That was bad enough, but on top of it we tried to maximize product values through remarkably long rotations. The resulting unplanned cuts forced by storms, snow, and insects have grown to one-third of the total harvest. Such levels were and are intolerable for sound management. To avoid this, we will either have to shorten our rotations, or we will have to turn back to more stable stand compositions.

The forestry profession itself came to the conclusion that a new concept of management should be found to meet future demands. In the western societies of central Europe, it took one or two decades for the controversies about a new management concept--controversies both within the forestry sector and outside it--to provoke a reaction in the political system. In the '70s and '80s, all the western states of central Europe passed new forest laws. For example, the Bavarian Forest Law of 1974 requires that "the state forests must serve the public welfare to a high degree. They are therefore to be managed in an exemplary fashion. The managing agencies must preserve or establish particularly healthy, productive, and stable forests."

Many of these laws required the development of forest management plans similar to those required by the National Forest Management Act in the United States.


There is no question that forests in central Europe have to produce both goods and services on the same area and have, therefore, to be managed under a multiple-use concept. The land base of central Europe is too small, and the population too dense, to segregate different land uses in different areas. The product mix for each management unit, some of which are quite small, must be planned according to biological, economic, and social parameters. In spite of the wide variation of possible product mixes, a general management concept can be drawn up. Such a concept would include:

* Mixtures of two or three species, at least one being indigenous.

* Cutting rotations according to the highest value production, on the average 120 to 140 years.

* Natural regeneration wherever possible, using shelterwood, group cutting, or selection harvest systems rather than clearcutting.

* No herbicides and rare use of insecticides and fertilizers. In 1985 the total consumption of pesticides in the Federal Republic of Germany was 30,000 tons. Only 43 tons were applied on the 17.5 million acres of forestland.

* No highly mechanized operations within the forest stand.

This general concept is followed today by all public forest services in central Europe and by many private owners as well. Private forest owners who manage according to this concept receive public aid through extension services and monetary incentives.

Forest decline has thus far been strictly regional in character, particularly affecting the forests in the middle European mountain ranges. The Alps and the Black Forest show the worst symptoms. All are in areas where erosion protection and the recreational- and water-protection functions of the forest are of special importance. These forests will have to be rehabilitated much more quickly than forests in other areas.

We are aware that the realization of these new concepts will take along time. After a century of forest rehabilitation, we now have a century of conversion ahead of us. We are convinced that the new concept is a fair compromise of ecological, social, and economic goals and therefore can be supported by a large majority of our public. We have started it on its way. We hope it too will be a success.
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Author:Plochmann, Richard
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
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