Waldsterben—It’s Your Problem Too!
ARE you good at riddles? Try this one. I am centuries older than you but am now in danger of dying prematurely. Although one, I am composed of many that, sorry to say, are getting fewer. And despite being green, I am called black. What am I?
If your answer is the Black Forest of Germany, you are right. How sad that the dark fir and spruce trees that once covered its mountainsides so thickly and that gave it its name are being struck down by a silent killer. But wait! That’s not all.
“From Italy to Denmark, yes, all over Europe, the forests are dying,” said University of Munich forest expert Professor Peter Schütt in 1983. Since then, in the light of unmistakable evidence that this problem has moved farther north into Scandinavia, his words have taken on greater urgency.
North America, particularly Canada, has the problem too, but nowhere has it taken on such alarming proportions as in Europe. And since forests have played such a prominent role in the history and mythology of Germany, covering 29 percent of its land area, it seems appropriate that a German word—Waldsterben—has been widely adopted to describe this problem of the “dying forest.”
How Dying Forests Affect You
Do you enjoy an occasional walk through the woods? Does it warm your heart to see children thrill at the sight of deer and other wildlife in their natural habitat? Remember, without forests, no more walks, no more wildlife, no more refreshing forest air.
And should the forests continue to die, think of the adverse effect upon the economies of lumber-producing countries like Canada and Sweden. Actually, the economy of the entire world would suffer. Estimate, if you can, how expensive wood and wood products, including paper, might then become.
Besides, the lack of tree coverage in mountainous regions invites disaster. A study recently published in Munich says that half the villages in the Alpine foothills of Bavaria are endangered by “falling rocks, avalanches, and floods” that could make “roads between villages impassable.” The situation is said to be similar in other Alpine regions.
But the greatest threat of all is the fact that unless something is done soon, as Professor Schütt warns, “our forest ecosystems will break down within the next ten or twenty years.” Such a breakdown would lead to a reduction in the number of plant and animal species. It would influence the climate, altering temperatures globally. It would also change rainfall patterns, endangering water reserves and crops.
And what about health? Can we expect humans to maintain good health while breathing the same polluted air that is evidently killing our trees? One German study claims to have discovered a correlation between the spread and extent of Waldsterben and the degree and extent of diseases of the human respiratory system. A University of California doctor is quoted as saying ‘that if no cure for cancer is found within the next 75 years, many people will suffer, but unless we find some means of preserving nature within the next 15 years, everyone will suffer.’
Dr. Albert Hofmann of Switzerland says that “if there is no basic difference in the way forest trees and fruit trees or other edible plants, grains, etc., assimilate carbon dioxide,” which evidently there is not, “then it must be considered a real possibility that within the foreseeable future plants used by man as food will start dying also.” In conclusion, he says: “With the dying of our forests the very foundation for all earthly life is becoming seriously endangered.”
In view of the gravity of the situation, it is certainly not an exaggeration when the book Unser Wald Muss Leben (Our Forest Must Live) says that our dying forests present us with “the greatest challenge of our time.”
Not without reason has it been said: “First the forests die, then the people.” Can anything be done?
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More Than a German Problem
Switzerland: A recently completed study estimates that the number of diseased trees there has risen to 46 percent, a 10-percent increase within the last year.
Austria: The director of the Institute for Forestry at the University of Soil Cultivation in Vienna says that half the trees in the country show visible signs of disease. He claims: “There is not a single tree left in all of Austria that has not suffered latent damage.”
Yugoslavia: Visible symptoms of disease can be seen in spruce and fir trees.
France: The existence of dying forests was denied up until 1983, but signs that trees are diseased are now becoming evident.
Luxembourg: In 1984 damaged forests were reported for the first time.
Czechoslovakia: In the Ore Mountains on the border of the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia, over 120,000 acres (50,000 ha) of forest are reported to be dead already.
Belgium: Some 70 percent of the forest cover in the eastern part of the country is said to be diseased.
England and Scotland: The United Kingdom Forestry Commission reported in 1984 that tree damage in south and west Scotland and in northwest England is “new and quite widespread on a number of species.”