May 15, 2023

Here's how we’re resurrecting an iconic forest

The Harz is one of the biggest forests in Germany, known for its extensive spruce tree cover. It’s home to the Broken mountain, and habitat to a plethora of wild animal species, like mouflons, red deer, and Germany's largest population of lynx, that have found refuge from the modern world in the vast protected woodlands of Harz National Park.

But over the past years, climate change has brought unprecedented heat waves to the area. And following a historic drought, 80% of its tree cover has died within only 3 years, turning the once iconic landscape into a graveyard of deadwood.

In our third mission, we have partnered with Harz National Park, to turn things around and transform the stressed ecosystem into a strong and climate resilient mixed forest.

How human meddling created the perfect storm

If you want to revive an ecosystem after a tragedy like this, it’s crucial to understand the root of the problem. In our case the problem started the moment humans began meddling with the ecosystem.

The Harz region has been covered in trees for thousands of years. Originally, the area had an abundance of deciduous trees like beech, ash trees, birch, maple and many others – as well as spruce trees in the higher altitudes.

But over centuries humans used the wood for mining, which led to large clear cut areas. To produce more wood quickly, only fast growing spruce monocultures were planted. After World War II, even more wood was needed to rebuild the country and pay reparations. Again spruce was the tree of choice for replanting. Both times also in regions where they normally don’t grow: below 700 meters.

A group of logs

Since 1990, a large part of the area has been under national park protection, with the aim to let nature run its own course again. But the previous monoculture practices had massively reduced the forest’s natural resilience – to a point where the right mix of stressors could bring everything to collapse in a chain reaction. And the first domino started to fall in the summer of 2018, when the globally changing climate brought a historic heatwave and subsequent drought to the region.

How the trees started to fall

Spruce trees need cool temperatures and lots of water to stay healthy and protect themselves against one of their biggest natural enemies, the bark beetle. As the name suggests, this bug feeds on the tree's bark. They chomp their way through the conductive pathways underneath the bark, thereby cutting off the nutrient supply that feeds into the crown. Once that happens, the spruce is left to starve.  

Drawings of the bark beetle

Usually, the spruce can fend the beetle off through the secretion of resin. But without water, there’s no resin production and the beetle has free reign.

Under the right conditions, a female beetle can produce hundreds of thousands of offspring per year, which is why a bug the size of a pin head was able to bring down 20.000 hectares of tree cover since 2018.

Why Planet Wild got involved      

Seeing the large-scale devastation first hand is shocking. But there is hope as well: If you look closely beneath the deadwood, you can already see new saplings naturally sprouting everywhere, showing nature's unfaltering ability for rebirth. The ecosystem as a whole always finds a way to adapt. Through new clearings sunlight reaches the forest floor and allows young trees to take root. Over time, more of those species that are adapted to the higher temperatures  will find their way here. And gradually the flora changes over generations and even centuries. This is what nature has always done, and what has been part of a natural process that is literally hundreds of millions of years old.

And yet something is different this time. Because it’s the first time during human civilization that global climate conditions have changed so rapidly. We are witnessing large-scale tipping points in only a few years, which leaves nature with very little time to adapt gradually.

The Harz forest landscape

The saplings that are now repopulating the area are of course mostly spruce trees again. And they will face the same fate over and over, which leaves our children and grandchildren stuck with the same problem. As things stand, it would take many human lifetimes until more climate resilient species will travel far enough to repopulate these forests in a way that is fully adapted to the new conditions.

But is there any way we could give nature a helping hand? Absolutely yes!

Our support

On our third mission, we partnered up with Harz National Park to leapfrog the natural adoption process by generations. We planted climate resilient trees between the deadwood to make sure that the new sprouting forest is future proof. And importantly, we mixed it up - no more monoculture, but the beginning of a wild and self replicating mixed forest.

With the help of our community we’ve planted a total of 5,000 deciduous trees in selected areas of the park, where they’ll be able to achieve hundreds of years of climate change adaptation within only one generation. These trees will never be harvested. We just gave them back to the forest and now will let nature take over.

The Planet Wild team supporting volunteers in the Harz forest

A blogpost like this can hardly capture the spirit of over 100 volunteers that were working with us to help revive this forest one tree at a time, despite rain and chili temperatures. But you can clearly see the sense of achievement with every sapling planted, in our mission video below:

The impact

The 5,000 trees we’ve planted have already increased the biodiversity in the forest. But their most important job is to serve as pioneers, propagating a diverse mix of seeds deep into the forest over the coming years. They will speed up the ecosystem change in a way that seeds traveling from far away simply couldn't. This way, we’ll be able to witness the transformation that is needed within our own lifetimes.

New plant growing with green leaves

And as these new mixed forests are starting to reshape the landscape, the spruce will still find its place within the higher altitudes of the Broken mountain, where it naturally thrives and can remain an iconic part of one of Germany's most beautiful regions.

A personal note

This mission was such an amazing example of taking a devastating crisis, and really turning it into an opportunity – to boost natural rebirth and bring back a solution that has been patiently waiting to be rediscovered. I believe there is a lot to learn from this. Faced with the multiple ecological crises of our time, it is important to remember that each of them offers us a chance. A chance to find better solutions than those that failed us. Sometimes those solutions will come from more innovation. But oftentimes they will come from looking back at the way things used to be before they broke. And from understanding that our natural environment actually IS the outcome of innovation – millions of years worth of it. And it will continue to hold answers for us if we take our chance to ask.

Markus Gilles

Co-Founder, Planet Wild

A bison wearing sunglasses

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