Fighters for Romania's primeval forests

An interview with forest conservationist Hannes Knapp

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© Matthias Schickhofer / EuroNatur

 “We’re having to deal with a tangle of vague responsibilities, corruption, foreign investors and timber companies. All of that is accompanied by a high level of profiteering. ‘Dracula System’ would be a fitting description for what we’re seeing in Romania.” From the moment the ecologist Professor Dr Hannes Knapp was first confronted with the extent of the deforestation taking place in the Romanian Carpathians, he made his feelings abundantly clear. In this interview, Hannes Knapp talks about paradise forests, wood pellets, global warming and the future of our forests. 

Through our SaveParadiseForests campaign we want to preserve Europe's last paradise forests. What is a paradise forest?

A primary forest or natural forest is one that has not been managed for decades. It’s a forest that is able to exist as a forest in its own right, in all its processes, structures and in its diversity of organisms.

“Real forest is always a paradise, but it is now only found in areas that are very difficult to access.”

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Wild forests in Boia Mica valley in the Romanian part of the Carpathians. 

© Matthias Schickhofer
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Clear cut in an Natura 2000 protected area in Făgăraș mountains. 

© Matthias Schickhofer

In Boia Mica, a remote mountain valley situated in the Făgăraș Mountains in the Romanian Carpathians, for example, I had the primal experience of seeing nothing but wild forest for hours on end. It makes me sad to see what people in this country perceive as forest. 

Very few people have ever experienced a "real forest". Can you take our readers on a mental excursion?

I was lucky enough to work for 25 years on Vilm, an island (near Rügen, Germany) which was covered in paradise forest. This forest has never seen an axe or a saw. When you look at the old, venerable trees there, it's wonderful. They’re allowed to fall down, to decay over time, you can watch them crumble away into humus and become new habitats for a multitude of organisms. It’s not the same with commercial or managed forests. They’re much younger and the trees are all planted uniformly, in rows. That kind of forest is unfortunately the norm today.

Does it feel different when you walk into an old-growth forest ?

Yes, absolutely. You’re stepping into another world. You’re leaving the everyday behind. It's a world of wonder and you move in a completely different way: carefully, quietly, attentively.

Around two thirds of the European Union’s last paradise forests (outside Scandinavia) are found in the Romanian Carpathians. The way these natural resources are treated is, to a large extent, brutal. What kind of things have you seen?

It makes me shudder just to think of it. I first became aware of the issue in 2016. A colleague wanted to show me a beautiful mountain valley with mixed mountain forest in the Southern Carpathians. There was a sign which read “European Union support project for strengthening rural development” and we followed a devastated forest road upwards for many kilometres. We saw huge piles of timber and an erosion gully cut several metres deep into the mountainside, and we could see from it that trees had been transported down to the valley. In the upper part we came across large areas that had been clear-cut. An infestation of bark beetles had been used as justification for the destruction there. This particular example was a relatively modest one in terms of the surface area involved, but it was horrifying nevertheless. After that, we went on further to the south west and came across large-scale deforestation in its most brutal form. And this in an EU member state - incredible! Europe’s last natural forests are being torn to shreds.

“But we need wood!” is an argument we increasingly hear. What’s your answer to that?

Of course we need wood, but the current huge demand for wood is being systematically driven by timber industry advertising. The forestry lobby's claim that wood consumption will save the climate and the world is so hypocritical that I’m at a loss for words.

“It’s outrageous that wood is being counted as renewable energy. It has triggered a dramatic boom in the use of wood for energy use."

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Romania’s roads are full of timber transporters like these. The demand for firewood and wood pellets is increasing rapidly.

 

© Agent Green

Entire industries have been set up to turn forests into pellets - not just in Romania and Slovakia, but in Scandinavia too. Forests are literally being incinerated by global market mechanisms. Demand needs to be based on the what the forests can supply and not the other way round! When we talk about forest and nature conservation, it doesn’t mean taking all forests out of production. Of course, there is a need for wood and it does grow back, but the reasonable use of wood must not be used as justification for destroying forests.

Many environmentally minded people no longer know what the right thing to do is; heating with oil is bad, biogas production is also controversial and using wood pellets for heating is also clearly a threat to the environment. What do you tell these people?

The crucial steps are, first and foremost, reducing consumption and effectively insulating buildings. I consider the use of pellets for fuel to be a tragic aberration that should be stopped immediately. This development was the catalyst both for the massive pressure, and for the establishment of whole industries that are tearing old-growth forests to shreds. Forests are too precious to be allowed to be burnt as pellets. It’s a dangerous fallacy to believe that we can just carry on as before, without any restrictions, because we’re using a supposedly "renewable resource".

What could an ecological forest transition look like?

There are two issues. Firstly, we need to allow forests in protected areas be forests and take them out of production. In Germany, after decades, this has more or less been achieved in national parks. It must also become a requirement for forest nature reserves. In this country, the way in which forests are treated is one of the biggest nature conservation failings of all. In many nature reserves, logging is still being carried out the same way it is in commercial forests. That needs to be changed urgently. Secondly, the vast majority of forest area will continue to be cultivated in the future. It’s therefore important to manage this forest so that sustainability is not just talked about, but also genuinely practised. And this is not just about how much wood is removed and how much grows back again.

“Ecological forest transition means understanding that forests are more than a collection of trees, and far more than a mere supplier of timber."

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Dead wood is by no means useless. It is the basis for new life. This three-toed woodpecker uses the dead tree trunk to build a breeding burrow in it. 

© Matthias Schickhofer

According to the German Federal Forest Inventory, less wood is being removed than is  growing back. That may well be the case, but it’s not convincing when you take a look around in the forests. Basing arguments on cubic metres alone is not enough.

What’s wrong with that argument?

It misses the bigger picture, which is that forests need to be recognised as ecological systems. There are practical examples of forest management that really deserve to be called “ecological forest management” and which are also economically successful. But these examples are being ignored due to the pressure for industrialisation, due to the strain of personnel reductions in forest management authorities. In the 1990s, it was possible to see a trend moving in the right direction. But with the virtual privatisation of state forestry authorities since the turn of the millennium, the situation has been reversed. There’s been a drastic reduction in personnel and huge amounts of machinery have been acquired. You can extract more wood in less time, and in order for these machines to pay for themselves, they’re running all year round. The privately run state forestry institutions are generally commercial enterprises, but at the same time they’re supposed to be official forestry authorities, which is absurd. 

Is that a German problem or a European one?

It’s a global problem. We’ve witnessed the destruction of forests in the tropics for some time. But now, the forests of the more northern latitudes are equally affected. What's going on in Siberia, northern Russia, Scandinavia, Canada, Alaska and the USA is horrifying. There’s a wave of global forest destruction at the moment. And it’s having an impact on the climate, because, together with the oceans, forests are the most important climate regulators in the biosphere. Forests need to be cohesive in order to maintain their internal forest climate and thus also to be able to have a retroactive effect on regional climate. When they’re chopped up and thinned out, this function is very limited. Then there’s a self-perpetuating downward spiral.

Speaking of global warming, anyone who has walked through a forest in recent drought years will have been able to feel, quite literally, how the trees were suffering. Will forests, as we know them in temperate regions, soon cease to exist ?

That will depend on where we go from here. Our climate is shifting towards being a forest-steppe eco-region, but forests are much more adaptable than we think, as long as they’re left alone and we don’t try to construct them according to our own designs. On the one hand, I’m shocked by the effects of the drought years. Yet I don’t see forests dying. Instead, they will regenerate and renew themselves from within. The range of tree and shrub species which exists in Central Europe is so wide that it can respond to fluctuations in climate and the forests will grow back. There is one condition however, and that’s that they’re not put under additional stress by the way they’re managed. But that’s exactly what’s happening! It’s essential that we give forests the time and space to adapt to the climate. Instead, forestry policy has deteriorated to a point where action is being taken for action’s sake. A billion-euro aid programme has been launched. Damaged and dying plantations are being cleared and then replanted on a large scale using heavy machinery. That’s the wrong way to go.

The book “Der Holzweg” (“On the wrong track - conflict of interest in the forest”)  is intended, among other things, to be a wake-up call for civil society. Why is that?

It’s likely that only civil society pressure will change the way forests are treated.

“I think it’s great how EuroNatur is working to protect Romania’s forests and is keeping in touch with its partners locally."

These initiatives, run by civil society groups that are active on the ground, bring issues into the media as well as into people's consciousness. It takes time, but without this commitment the situation would be even worse.

Hannes Knapp, thank you very much for this interview!

Interview: Katharina Grund

About Hannes Knapp

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© Matthias Schickhofer

Professor Dr Hannes Knapp has been closely associated with EuroNatur for many years, first as a member of the EuroNatur Board of Trustees and, since 2016, as a member of the Presiding Committee. The now retired geobotanist and landscape ecologist led the field office of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation on the island of Vilm from its inception and set himself the goal of establishing a network to protect old-growth beech forests in as many European countries as possible. Hannes Knapp has made a significant contribution to ensuring that precious areas of beech forest in Germany, Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania and Albania are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. He continues to teach as an honorary professor at the Institute of Botany and Landscape Ecology in Greifswald and is dedicated to the conservation of the Romanian Carpathian forests. Hannes Knapp is an energetic supporter of the #SaveParadiseForests Campaign on the ground too. The book  “Der Holzweg - Wald im Widerstreit der Interessen” (On the wrong track - conflict of interest in the forest) by Hans Dieter Knapp, Siegfried Klaus, Lutz Fähser (ed.) was published in 2021 by oekom-Verlag (in German).

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