Sunday, August 25, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fears Of Black Forest's Death Apparenty Were Exaggerated

Washington Post

FREIBURG, Germany - A dozen years ago, in the German media and in the public imagination, the Black Forest was considered all but dead.

Apocalyptic newspaper headlines, television documentaries and somber environmentalists warned that the legendary wood - covering nearly a million acres in southwest Germany - was in the grip of ecological calamity. A lethal assault by pollutants and climatic changes were said to be creating an "evergreen cemetery," in the arresting phrase of one popular book published in 1984.

"Germany without forests - it's unimaginable. It would be a different country. And yet this will soon be the case," Stern magazine warned in 1983.

Yet today it is amply clear, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that despite some lingering concerns, rumors of the forest's death were premature. Not only is the Black Forest still marvelously verdant, but recent studies show that - like forests across most of Europe - it is growing faster than ever.

"Since we began measuring the forest more than 100 years ago, there's never been a higher volume of wood . . . than there is now," said Heinrich Spiecker, director of the Institute for Forest Growth.

"If you'd asked scientists about this five years ago," Spiecker added, "nobody would have believed it."

Cry of wolf

The German government's "Forest Condition Report" for 1995 conceded that "the earlier, pessimistic prognosis of a rapid, widespread dying of our forests has not occurred." And in "The So-Called Dying Forest," author Rudi Holzberger last year concluded that "the forest has survived prophesies of its death largely unscathed. Forest death is the classic example of a media phenomenon."

Nevertheless, scientists still disagree over the health of the German woods.

The government's 1995 report estimates that 22 percent of German trees show signs of damage, defined as suffering the loss of one-quarter of all needles or leaves. The proportion of damaged trees is higher than a decade ago.

Even those who are relatively sanguine about the situation acknowledge that the misplaced hysteria of the early 1980s had a "cry wolf" effect by deflating public interest in forest ecology. A Forsa Institute poll in 1993 found that only 3 percent of the Germans surveyed believed "Waldsterben" - forest death - to be a leading ecological concern.

Hatzfeldt, whose books in the 1980s included "The Forest Is Dying!," said: "On the one hand, the claim that the forest would die helped stir a lot of concern, especially in Germany, because for us it's so deeply embedded in history and culture and the psyche of people. At the same time, I feel that we have overdone it, and a bit of the callousness and carelessness about the forest today is the result of overexcitement 10 years ago."

Startling growth

The Black Forest's startling growth - tree stands show 20 to 30 percent more wood volume than similar plots a few decades ago - probably reflects nitrogen increases in tree diets, foresters say. But whether that is good, bad or indifferent for ecosystem balance in the long run remains uncertain.

"My colleagues say that a baby who stuffs himself with chocolate may look healthy, but that doesn't necessarily mean the baby is healthy," said Werner Schumacher, director of the Forest Experiment and Research Institute for the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. "It's been suggested that the forest could grow itself to death."

Germans tend to be passionate about their forests, which cover one-third of a country the size of Montana. Mystical attachment to the deep woods is a prominent theme in German romanticism. "Whoever has a heart in his body must regret that he cannot stay in the wood and live on berries," writer Bogumil Goltz rhapsodized in the 1860s.

Alarmism about the woods is nearly as old as the trees themselves. A century ago, author Hans Jakob quoted a landowner as warning, "If things keep on going the way they're going, we'll soon be able to change the name from the Black Forest to the Bald Forest."

Hysteria reached fever pitch in the early 1980s. Thousands of conifers in the Black Forest showed clear signs of stress, with an unsightly yellowing and massive needle loss. "Yellow Death Hovers Over the Sick Forests," one headline warned.

Massive campaign

From 1984 to 1994, the federal and state governments spent $376 million attempting to stabilize damaged areas in a massive "Save the Woods" campaign. More than 15 percent of the Black Forest, for example, has been treated with lime and other compounds to make the soil less acidic, Schumacher said. Another $300 million has been spent on about 850 research projects.

Although researchers variously suspected ozone depletion or the sulfur in acid rain, Spiecker now believes "that weather is the key factor, although I cannot prove it." Cool, wet weather - good conifer-growing conditions - from 1950 to 1970 was followed by a warm, dry spell beginning in the mid-1970s. The woods reacted badly, shedding needles to minimize transpiration, or vaporization through leaves. Tree corpses, spindly trunks shorn of needles, littered the forest.

But the anticipated calamity never happened; the forest, Schumacher said, "is more or less stable."

Spiecker also points out that the Black Forest, like many ecosystems, is constantly changing. Whereas firs once dominated the conifer stands - lending the forest a dark, brooding countenance that gave it its name - spruce trees are now equally common; moreover, deciduous trees, such as beech, oak, maple and ash, have declined.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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