Nature vs. nurture in forest recovery



Amidst criticism and applause from environmentalists and experts, a programme is emerging in Germany to expand the total area covered by forests -- to as much as five percent of national territory. The debate centres on just how much human intervention there should be.

The programme of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (known as BfN for the agency's original name) has a goal for 2020 to multiply 10-fold the forested areas, an estimated 194,000 hectares with relatively little impact from human activities.

The main argument in defence of the plan, launched in June in support of the International Year of Biodiversity, is that the current area is very small in comparison with the nature parks of Great Britain, for example, which cover more than eight percent of national territory.

The 'old growth' forests began to decline in European countries beginning with industrialisation more than 200 years ago, a process that accelerated in the mid-20th century.

The disappearance of those original ecosystems is most evident along the banks of rivers, most of which have been channelled, or in coastal regions, due to the construction of dikes and other modes of protecting human settlements and farmland from the tides.

Even the forests that remain relatively intact in the heart of the national parks show some big differences with respect to the original European forest.

Only in the Nordic countries and in parts of Eastern Europe do extensive natural areas subsist, and experts consider them essential for protecting biodiversity and serving as a buffer against the effects of climate change, because they can be used to recreate the environment as it was before human impacts.

'They are very useful as spaces of comparison and for studying the natural dynamic of evolution. We can draw lessons from them to put into practice in a future policy of environmental protection,' said Jessel.

Jessel commented that Germany should have the courage to 'let nature reign again in broad areas of its territory.'

However, some environmentalists doubt that concepts like 'natural forest' and 'wilderness' are useful for protecting biodiversity.

'That logic isn't completely false, but it hides the fact that human intervention with the intent of environmental protection also essentially contributes to the same goals,' Gisela Kangler, ecology professor at the Technical University of Munich, told Tierramérica.

In the protected areas, human intervention prevents particularly harmful species from turning into plagues that would naturally destroy the ecological balance of the forest. That means the balance is artificially maintained, but is better than the alternative, she said.

The problem is common in wild areas. In the 1980s, the proliferation of beetles nearly destroyed the central region of the Bavarian Forest National Park, founded in 1967. The onslaught forced local authorities to take action, even against their initial intentions.

BfN ecologists are open to the option of human intervention. Axel Ssymank, an expert in biotopes and landscape ecology, told Tierramérica that many non-forest regions today serve as the new habitat for species expelled as cities and farmland expanded.

'Such areas should be protected and the forest should not be allowed to take over,' or else it would naturally destroy the new ecosystem, said Ssymank. 'The German forest today would be 80 to 90 percent beech trees if our ancestors had not diversified it for economic reasons,' he added.

In Ssymank's view, society 'should intentionally develop the natural forest.' The demographic evolution of some German regions could be an element in favour of such development of nature, even if it is artificial, he said.

A report on the demographic changes in the northeastern federal state of Brandenburg, by the private Berlin Institute for Population and Development, proposes providing incentives for the local residents to move to other areas so that nature can take its course.

In this district in Berlin's outskirts, what was once an industrial zone of the former East Germany is now an area of poverty and unemployment -- reaching 11.1 percent. The scant opportunities for economic development have fed emigration from the area, leaving just 86 inhabitants per square kilometre.

Klingholz said in a conversation with Tierramérica, 'It is not even necessary to dismantle the abandoned cities and industrialised areas, because the deserted buildings are -- in certain ecosystem situations -- more varied than a pine forest.'

However, the authorities of German municipalities in decay continue to insist on subsidising industry, commerce and residents, offering tax exemptions and extensive urbanised areas that, according to environmentalists, could be abandoned to nature.

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