Climate crisis is exposing hard truths about commercial forestry

Brutal management practices are making forest increasingly fragile and can no longer be ignored. State-organised forestry is slowly collapsing, says Peter Wohlleben.
A still from the 2020 film starring Peter Wohlleben, 'The Hidden Life of Trees'.
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Forestry as it has been traditionally practiced is facing massive problems. Spruce and pine plantations are dying, and the public is beginning to notice that this is not all due to climate change. Bark beetles are eating up the monocultures of trees, fire is laying waste to forests, and chainsaws are severely weakening trees’ amazing ability to generate rain and cool themselves.

Everything worked so well for such a long time. Countries around the world followed the example of foresters in Germany and transformed large sections of their forests into plantations, providing a reliable source of wood for the timber industry for decades. Switching to fast-growing species and breeding trees for desired traits brought results like those achieved by factory farming: individuals ready for harvest at a young age, all with a relatively uniform carcass weight.

Just like animals on factory farms, however, trees in plantations are extremely delicate, and substantial losses due to diseases and natural events are a constant problem. Wood from these tree factory farms is of significantly lower quality than wood from primeval forests.

The public is not aware of this because industry has adjusted to lower-quality lumber, and technology has stepped in to replace what trees can no longer offer due to poor forest management. Just try to buy a thick wooden beam made in one piece. It’s practically impossible. Nowadays, thick beams are made by gluing tiny boards together, so you can produce beams of any size without the need for large trunks.

Forestry is much more difficult to plan than agriculture, despite many similarities. Wood is a perishable commodity. After it is harvested in summer, it often must be processed within a few weeks before wood-destroying fungi or insects significantly reduce its quality. The pressure doesn’t even let up in winter, as this season is now increasingly becoming so warm that fungi can grow in wood then too.

One big difference between forestry and farming is the duration between planting or seeding and harvest. Whereas farmers can change their plans every year, foresters are tied to their decisions for the next 60 to 200 years, depending on tree species. Who can know so far in advance what the market will want?

Then comes climate change, which greatly increases uncertainty. Now it’s more than simply a question of what the future demand will be; it’s also a question of whether the trees will grow large enough and reach a suitable harvest age before they die. As if that weren’t enough, even without climate change, here in Germany winter storms blow through every few years, flattening large numbers of trees. And because wood is perishable, these trees must get to market quickly, which means prices plummet.

On top of all that comes the question of sustainability at this scale. A farmer can begin again the year after a catastrophe. However, after a storm blows through, forest owners must hold back from logging the remaining trees because the storm has felled too many trees prematurely. Drought years with their attendant attacks by bark beetles are a regular occurrence, as are fashion trends that suddenly favour different types of wood for furniture. In the worst-case scenario, entire markets collapse, as happened when wood was no longer needed to brace tunnels in mines.

To sum up: in forestry few predictions can be made about what will happen in the long term. Despite this, German law requires the owners of large private forests and managers of public forests to draw up ten-year plans. Calculations are made, plans are formulated, and measurements are taken – only to find a decade later that everything has changed. I have yet to see a single case where these long-term calculations made any sense at all.

There’s another completely different reason that long-term forestry planning gets derailed. Even reasonably intact forests are producing less wood. The reason for this decline makes perfect sense. Trees that discard their leaves prematurely in summer cannot grow as much wood as they would in a normal year. And if the climate deteriorates to such an extent that we hardly ever have normal years, then plans should be modified to reflect this—or, rather, they will have to be.

During discussions at the forest academy, we see over and over again that foresters react as though climate change is an accounting problem. Accordingly, they strike the dying stands of plantation spruce from their books. Their new plans glide over the fact that the remaining beech and oak forests are also struggling—and so they switch to harvesting them instead. This weakens the ancient forests best placed to withstand climate change. The trees’ social connections are destroyed; the forest floor heats up in the sunshine and dries out. Unfortunately, some of the most impressive trees now die – but somehow, the forest agencies always find a way to create good headlines from catastrophe.

This article is an edited extract from How Trees Can Save the World, published in March 2024 by Harper Collins. Buy a copy here.

Peter Wohlleben has written 32 books on forestry, and is the founder of Wohllebens Wald & Wildnis gGmbH, a nonprofit committed to the preservation of forests in Germany.

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