The Forests of Central Europe: New Perspectives

By Plochmann, Richard | American Forests, May-June 1992 | Go to article overview

The Forests of Central Europe: New Perspectives


Plochmann, Richard, American Forests


Europe is considered the fountainhead of the scientific principles on which American forest management was developed. There, as well as in this country, foresters today are changing their viewpoints on how best to sustain healthy, diverse forest ecosystems. The evolution of philosophies regarding forests that have been managed for centuries should hold a lesson or two for American foresters, who now find themselves buffeted by unprecedented change. This article was adapted by AI Sample, director of AFA's Forest Policy Center, from a lecture the late Dr. Plochmann gave while professor of forest history at the University of Munich.

If its evolution had been left to nature, central Europe today would be a wooded land with over 90 percent of its area under forest cover, consisting of temperate hardwood forests, mainly beech and oak; mixed hardwood/Scotch pine forests; and mountainous coniferous forests composed primarily of Norway spruce and European fir. Hardwoods clearly dominated central European forests, with an estimated proportion of 80 to 85 percent. Since the beginning of agriculture in central Europe 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, about two-thirds of the forest area has been cleared for other types of land use. In many areas the use has changed at least once between farms and forests. Because of the nature of the clearing process, which peaked between the years 1000 and 1300, the forests were removed from the most productive sites and were preserved mainly where no other type of use with higher returns was possible. These long periods of utilization and management have had great impact on the composition, structure, and productivity of the remaining forests. Not one acre of forest has been left untouched, and thus not one acre of virgin forest still exists. All central European forests are manmade.

FOREST USE, ABUSE, AND REHABILITATION

At the end of the 18th century, central European forests were in bad shape. In addition to supplying timber for a rapidly growing population and economy, they were being exploited for the export of large quantifies of logs to the Netherlands and United Kingdom and to provide domestic farms with leaf fodder for livestock and litter for stables.

They were also habitat for the large game populations that were strictly protected by despotic territorial rulers who had the sole fight to hunt. For 150 years, the forests were overcut, overgrazed, overraked, and overbrowsed. From the end of the Thirty Years' War (1648) to the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1796), the forests were exhausted and degraded.

One critic during the period claimed that on 10,000 acres of a certain forest district, no tree could be found strong enough to hang a forester from it. Only the political, social, and economic reforms in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars opened the opportunity to rebuild the ravaged forests. Other factors contributed as well:

* Forestry had developed as a new scientific field at universities and academies.

* The newly formed central European states created modern and effective forest services fully responsible for the management of the forest.

* Modern forms of agriculture reduced the reliance on forests for livestock grazing and bedding.

* The feudal hunting monopoly that previously prevailed was abolished.

As the rehabilitation of forests began in the 1820s, central European foresters came to the conclusion that Scotch pine, Norway spruce, black locust, white pine, and--after 1880--Douglas-fir promised much higher returns than the natural hardwood forests could.

And so the rehabilitation of the central European forests was achieved mainly with an early form of plantation management. The hardwood thickets and hardwood stands within conifer forests, comprising around 50 percent of the forest area at that time, were cleared away and replaced by conifer plantations. Today, not even 3 percent of the hardwood stands are left. …

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