Sometimes, when you walk through Germany’s Black Forest on a warm day, you can hear spruce needles falling so heavily that it sounds like rain.
The floor of the national forest isn’t the reddish-brown of dead needles, but green: The ground you walk on looks more like a shag carpet. It seems dreamy. Until you realize that as you are walking, the trees around you are being eaten alive.
Two years of extremely dry, hot summers and warm winters are ideal breeding ground for bark beetles, which attack spruce more than other trees. That’s meant a population explosion that could threaten the forest’s very existence, as weakened trees lose their resistance.
Instead of one generation per summer, foresters are now observing two and three generations of bark beetles in one season.
Roughly 1,000 beetles can live in a tree at a given time. Each produces about 60 eggs, meaning 60,000 newly hatched beetles can fly out of one tree in the spring. A U.S. explosion of bark beetles that began in the 1990s has seen 116 million acres of North American trees get chomped, and in 2014 the U.S. government had to allocate $200 million to battle the first hazards created by bark beetle destruction. Now Germany and other Central European countries with abundant forests are seeing their own trees destroyed in an unprecedented ecological crisis.
“If there are three generations, then 6 million beetles can be produced from one tree in one summer season,” says Jörg Ziegler, head forester of the Black Forest National Park. “See the dimension of the problem?”
Conventional wisdom says to cut down the affected trees — that’s what is done in the United States — but Ziegler and his colleague Markus Kautz aren’t conventional. Since the creation of Baden-Württemberg’s first and only national park in 2014, they are conducting an experiment to see if nature can heal itself if it is left alone.
To appease the timber industry, they have created a one-third-mile buffer zone around the perimeter of the 25,000-acre national park. If a tree within the buffer zone becomes infected by beetles, it is cut down, the bark is destroyed and the wood is sold.
However, if the tree falls inside the park, the rangers leave it and observe how nature handles its wounds. More than 7,000 acres of forest sit inside the observation zone.
“Our fear was that over the last 1,000 years of using this forest, we have changed it too much, that the forest system is so damaged, it wouldn’t be able to balance itself again,” says Ziegler.
What they have found though is that humans really don’t understand nature.
“The forest isn’t dying; trees die,” Ziegler says. “Nature has never been static.”
After the beetles have eaten the spruce, there’s more light on the forest floor. The rotting wood becomes a habitat for insects, fungi and lichen. Moor grass, bracken and blueberries take root. Seedlings from rowan berries pop up. In their shade, shade-tolerant species like the silver fir and the beech arrive. New spruce appear. But everything takes time. As the spruce mature, the beetles attack again, but the firs, pines and beech trees can survive for centuries. Left alone, the beetles essentially do the job of the timber industry by clearing away weakened trees.
The spruce isn’t native to the Black Forest anyway. French forces introduced them after World War II when they cut down the existing wood for war reparations. To prevent erosion, they planted quick-growing spruce to replace the missing trees.
It’s not just the bark beetles that are hurting the Black Forest. Germany has suffered through two summers of extreme heat and drought, while flooding and storms have hit other regions of the Continent. This has left the timber market under enormous pressure throughout Europe.
Nearly 40 percent of Baden-Württemberg is forested, and the timber industry accounts for 4 percent of the state’s economy. So if the trees die — from beetles, drought, heat or flooding — so do jobs.
This summer Kautz monitored the insects’ steady progress in the park, leaving large brown matchsticks in their wake. About 5,000 trees per year in the buffer zone are affected, up from 3,000 four years ago.
“In the view of the national park, this rise isn’t particularly critical,” Kautz says.
But many in the timber industry fear for their livelihood if the beetles have their way. So when the federal government in late September announced an $870 million plan to transform the country’s forests from monoculture to “stable climatic forests,” the state’s forestry minister felt a need to step in to protect the business side of things
“We need an adaptation of forests to climate change, and no paradigm shift. We need intensive, sustainable forest management and use of wood,” Baden-Württemberg Minister of Forestry Peter Hauk told SWR.
Ziegler hopes to convince politicians and timber workers that both untouched nature and forested woods can coexist. But it’s a tough battle. A recent study commissioned by the forest service found that 43 percent of those surveyed still believe humans are needed to manage nature.
Really though, they just need patience. Leave a patch of ground alone and eventually fungi, grasses, bushes and trees will grow, providing food for the deer, falcons and wolves that are returning to the forest.
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