Alexander Zeihe: Sustainable forestry in Germany as an example for the rest of the world: Forests as an economic factor, climate protector and recreational areas

Germany can be proud of its forests. As recreational areas, as ecologically ­valuable areas and as an economic factor, this natural treasure has been going from strength to strength for years. In particular, the driving force behind this positive trend are the over two million forest owners – of whom over 3,000 are in Brandenburg – who are represented by the Federation of German Forest Owners Association.

Germany is one of the countries in the European Union with the most forests. With over 11.4 million hectares and a forested area that covers over a third of the country with trees, we have virtually the most heavily-forested area in Europe. On average, we have seven residents for every hectare of forest. Our richly forested neighbours such as Switzerland have six residents per hectare of forest, France has about four and Austria has over two residents. Our forests are characterised by 90 billion spruce trees, pines, beech, oaks and rarer species of trees. With about 1.1 million hectares, the state of Brandenburg owns the sixth-­largest area of forest of all the states in Germany. Besides a wide variety of trees, Brandenburg’s forests are dominated by pines.

The third and latest forest “stock-take”, or inventory, in 2012, which is carried out at regular intervals by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture, shows that the forests in Germany are doing well. Our forested areas have remained constant in size. Compared with the second forest inventory, a loss of over 58,000 hectares of forest has been compensated for by some 108,000 hectares of new forest, making an overall increase in the area of forest of 50,000 hectares. This positive situation is the result of long-term forestry practices in Germany which ensure stable and vital forests through the efforts of a large number of owners and forest rangers.

Our forests have a large number of functions. With turnover of some 180 billion euros, over 130,000 companies and about 1.2 million employees, the entire cluster of forests and timber is a major economic factor. The entire value chain ranges from planting a tree through felling and processing to the production of timber, furniture and pencils. In Brandenburg, the forestry and timber industries are the leading economic sector. With some 15,000 employees, it is a major employer – especially in rural areas. Every year, almost three million solid cubic metres of pine are harvested and, to a large extent, processed and worked in Brandenburg. This makes Branden­­burg Germany’s top producer of pine timber.

Forests are also important climate protectors. Almost 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are currently contained in trees and deadwood, with another 850 million tonnes in the litter layer and the ground. The forests in Germany alone relieve the atmosphere of some 52 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. At the same time, carbon dioxide is stored in wood, which can be found later in bookshelves, chairs and tables in our houses. This is why our Association supports getting wood construction in Ger­many out of its niche position: building with wood is the most efficient method of linking climate protection with healthy living.


Forests are also recreation areas. The many forest owners and forest rangers not only ensure that forests are managed commercially, the fact that they use forests means that forests are protected and cared for. But forest owners and forest rangers also ensure that forests are physically accessible and that city-dwelling hikers and those out for a walk can relax and enjoy themselves. They also preserve the habitats of a large number of animals and plants such as birds, insects and bushes, which must also be protected and looked after.

Forest owners emphasise this diversity repeatedly. They make clear that economy and ecology are two sides of the same coin and complement each other ideally. For our Association, which represents the interests of over two million forest owners in Germany, multi-functional forestry is thus the crucial prerequisite for diversity in a forest. A one-sided or even a romanticised view of it ignores the fact that forests were always a cultural land­­s­­cape, which made living and survival in nature possible for hu­­mans in the first place.

Of the 11.4 million hectares of forest in Ger­­many, 67 per cent are pri­­vately owned and­­/or owned by munic­­i­­palities or corporate organisations. Almost half (48 per cent) of these 11.4 million hectares are privately owned. At the same time, there are considerable regional differences. The share of privately-owned forests ranges in Germany from 24 per cent in Hessen to 67 per cent in North Rhine-Westphalia. They are found mostly in the more thinly-populated rural regions and are largely small-scale und fragmented. About half of the privately-owned areas of forests are owned by private sector companies and are generally less than 20 hectares in size. Only 13 per cent of those forests owned by companies are over 1,000 hectares in size. Ownership struc­­tures developed historically and regionally. Historically, the privately-owned small and mini-sized forest areas came into being due to peasant settlement, inheritance, the division of common land or the afforestation of agricultural land.

While the Federation of German Forest Owners Association promotes the interests of private, municipal and corporate forest owners at political level in Berlin, the interests of forest owners in Brandenburg are represented with much commitment by their forest owners’ association, which was founded in 1990. The AGDW and the forest owners association work to achieve the preservation and support for the use, protection and recreation functions of forests. The Brandenburg Association has over 3,000 members who manage some 100,000 hectares of forest.

In talks with forest owners, the close link with the forests becomes clear when they say that “The forest is our life.” Many owners feel a special link with their forests, whether they are the ninth or the tenth generation to manage them and intend passing them onto their children, or whether they have purchased a forest and feel res­­ponsible for looking after it and ensuring its vitality. Longterm and inter­­gen­erational thinking goes without saying in this context. This is why sustainable forestry in Ger­­many is based on three pillars: economy, ecology and social res­pon­­sibility. Sus­­tainability means protecting the forest as an ecosystem so that coming generations can live from it. An­­yone managing a forest does not think in the short term but over long periods.

An example is Carl von Carlowitz (1645 – 1714), the former Inspector of Mines from Saxony who discovered the principle of “sustainability” in his essay “Sylvicultura oeconomica” in 1713. On his travels through Europe, he observed that ore mines and smelting works, together with population and urban growth, had led to reckless deforestation; regulated silviculture and afforestation programmes did not exist. So in his essay he called for the respectful and careful treatment of nature and its natural re­sources and criticised the short-term, profit-oriented exploitation of forests. For the forest owners of today, the principle of sustainability is the basis of forest management.

Many owners become certified via PEFC (Pro­­­­gramme for the En­­dorse­­ment of For­­est Cer­­tifi­­ca­tion Schemes). This is a kind of quality inspection process for forests and is the world’s biggest and only independent institution for ensuring sustainable forestry by an in­­ter­­na­tional certification system. In Germany alone about two thirds of forest areas, or over 7,500 companies, are already PEFC-certified. This gives sustainable forestry a role-­model function on the international scene. Forest owners and forest rangers from Asia and Africa are curious to learn about Germany’s forest management. They look to Germany because its forest owners and rangers practice sustainability, thereby – very unpretentiously – ensuring stability and reliability.

Portrait_Alexander_ZeiheAlexander Zeihe
The author has been CEO of AGDW – Die Waldeigentümer since 2014. He initially served in the German Navy on a limited service commission for twelve years. During this period, he earned a degree in Social and Economic History and Business Administration. He advised the German President as an adjutant for four years before moving to a well-known private sector insurance company. There he worked as a senior branch manager in Hamburg before being appointed as group authorised officer for Berlin in 2012.