German forests, immortalized by Goethe in poems, are far removed from their image of robust health. A new study shows that increasing air and soil pollution have taken a heavy toll on the country's trees.
Goethe composed odes to the lush German forest, today it's a shadow of itself
The German oak tree seems to be in need of constant medical care. Almost every second tree is ailing. In fact, the overall level of damage to the nation's oaks has increased fivefold since 1984.
Trees in the national park in Bavaria shows signs of ailing.
It's not just the much-loved oak that's suffering. A report presented this week by the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry in Berlin showed that beech trees as well have gotten very sick over the last two decades. The news was only slightly better when it came to conifers: every third fir tree is sick and only every fifth pine tree is under the weather, the report said.
"The health of the German forest remains a source of worry," said deputy Agriculture Minister, Peter Paziorek this week.
More energy-efficient measures needed
Experts say the main reasons for the dismal state of the forests are air pollution caused by more vehicle traffic, soil depletion due to agricultural activity, extreme weather conditions and bug infestation.
In addition, the record heat wave that struck Germany in 2003 also took a heavy toll on trees, many of which have never fully recovered.
Paziorek underlined that the damage wrought by air pollution had to be stemmed. "The key is in rational energy use," he said.
Coal-fired power plant in North Rhine-Westphalia
The Agriculture Ministry has urged people to increase efforts to fight air pollution by using energy-efficient cars, heating systems, and household appliances. It asks home owners to use environmentally-friendly methods when they renovate buildings.
The government recently decided to promote the latter with four billion euros between 2006 and 2009. Paziorek also said that the governing coalition also planned to subsidize wood-based heating.
"Permanently stressed out"
But, the report has provoked much criticism from both opposition parties as well as environmental groups who say the government isn't doing enough to protect trees.
For the first time, environment groups also presented an alternative report on the state of German forests, detailing the measures that they deem crucial to restoring the health of trees.
The chairwoman of the environmental group BUND, Angelika Zahrnt, said the forest was "permanently stressed out" and ordered a change of tack in the government's transport policies.
"You can't just keep building new streets," said Zahrnt, pointing out that that was exactly what the new government planned with its latest reform package.
Other organizations have put forth proposals that range from dropping the use of pesticides to reining in deforestation to formulating a modern hunting law that would cull stocks of wild boars and deer that often eat trees.
Farmers' groups have also urged Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer to promote ecological farming and create more jobs in forestry.
Germany using mountains of paper
Some of the most pointed criticism was reserved for Germany's massive consumption of paper, which the alternative report made Germany one of the main culprits for the worldwide clearing of forests. The report urged the government to popularize recycling paper, the use of which has declined in recent years.
According to estimates, Germany uses more paper than in Africa and South America put together.