SCHIERKE, Germany – Several retirees, some millennials, a local couple and a technology specialist who saved overtime to take a day off from work gathered around a pile of birch branches that sprouted leaves at one end and a tangle of fine roots in the other one .
One by one, they grabbed a bunch of seedlings and made their way through fallen snow-covered branches, looking for holes that had been excavated in the black earth at the edge of the Harz National Park in the heart of Germany.
"You want to cover them well, and don't leave air pockets under the roots," said Olaf Eggert, the ranger responsible for this stretch of forest, while holding a seedling high, his index fingers thrown halfway to the stem to show how deep Young trees must be buried in the ground to ensure their survival until spring.
According to government data, more than 444,000 acres of forest in Germany are distressed or have died in recent years. Across the country, Germans are concerned about the survival of their forests, a natural treasure that is considered part of their identity and a source of their wealth.
Then people go to the forest to do what they can do to help save them.
Rangers in Harz National Park said they had repeatedly sought volunteers to help plant new trees since the park was established in 1990. But this year they just needed to advertise.
"We have many queries from people who need to do something to help the forest," said Eggert, the ranger.
Jörg Berthold, one of the volunteers, drove up the dozen others who participated in the reforestation effort of the day. "At times like this, you have to help him," said Berthold, who said he had responded to an ad posted on the national park's website to get help rejuvenating the forest. "It has become the great popular public sport around here: planting trees."
In the last weeks of the fall planting season, school classes were presented, employees of a nearby Volkswagen plant and members of sports clubs, sometimes exceeding the number of seedlings available.
A woman who identified herself as Jezz, a businesswoman from the nearby city of Wernigerode, said that this year she was helping local forests instead of traveling the world. "We are planting trees instead of flying in airplanes," he said.
In the 1980s, he fears that the German the forests were dying from acid rain, when the word "Waldsterben,quot; or "forest death,quot; was coined, provoked widespread protests and galvanized the popularity of the incipient Green party. Although laws to curb toxic emissions eventually led to a decrease in pollutants and forest recovery, that period left its mark on the trees that survived.
More recently, the rise in temperatures caused by climate change threatens German forests. The severe drought in 2018 followed by another exceptionally dry summer this year left trees across Germany vulnerable to bark beetles that lay their eggs just below the bark, which has killed the trees and left large tracts of Normally lush, green slopes of a sickly brown.
In addition to stress, there is a lack of diversity in tree species in German forests, where primitive forests were cut down hundreds of years ago and replaced by faster growing pines that have proven less resistant to rising temperatures. Some rangers are trying to change that by allowing previously cultivated forests to return to their natural state.
"Most of the German forests are in extreme conditions and, therefore, are likely to experience stress," said Allan Buras, who monitors forest health as a member of the Bavarian Climate Research Network. “This is also what we are seeing on the ground. We are finding higher mortality rates among trees. It's quite alarming. "
Forests occupy a special place in the German psyche and national identity, and date back to the Germanic tribes that worshiped lime trees and oaks that covered the lands of central Europe they ruled. The romantic German of the nineteenth century revived the image of the forest as a mythical place, one that could represent a danger as in "Little Red Riding Hood,quot; or offer protection as in "Snow White,quot;.
Later, industrialization and the need for wood led the Germans to see their forests as a source of wealth that could be managed and used on a large scale. In response, conservationism was born, with the introduction of reforestation efforts and the imposition of severe prison sentences and even the death penalty for any person caught causing forest fires.
The Germans are credited with having started the tradition of Christmas trees in the 16th century, and to this day many cities select the best fir trees from local parks and forests to cut and decorate during the holidays.
But in Wernigerode this year, residents gathered around a 49-foot-tall spruce that had been cut down for this year's Christmas market in the center of the medieval city. They argued that there was no point in sacrificing a healthy tree for the holidays, and city officials found a smaller tree to use.
Rangers estimate that 80,000 tree shoots have been placed on the ground around Schierke this year. Deeper in the park, nature is being repaired after centuries when the Germans cultivated and harvested forests to obtain wood.
The decision to trust nature to heal itself has resulted in large strips of bare and lifeless tree trunks in areas that were once filled with lush, dark green pines. This has confronted conservationists against foresters who fear that if dead trees are not cleaned, insect infestations will spread more rapidly.
At the same time, scientists are working to discover which varieties of trees will be more resistant to rising temperatures that have stressed even native beech. German foresters believe that their country could play a key role in determining how to transform forests to resist climate change.
Reforestation efforts are among the initiatives in an almost $ 889 million package approved by the German government this year to help save the forests. Pressure groups say that investment is desperately needed, and private foresters agree.
Cornelius Meyer-Stork is among the many private foresters who own almost half of all forests in Germany. He thanked the government for their support and noted that farmers in the European Union receive approximately $ 288 in subsidies for every 2.5 acres they work and are eligible for more if they meet certain requirements. On the contrary, he said, "foresters do not receive anything."
In previous years, he opened his forest to allow people to cut young pines like Christmas trees if they were crowding others. He also prepared the roads to establish a basic infrastructure and obtain the certification of his land as a sustainable forest for rest and relaxation.
But after bark beetles razed a hillside once covered with pine trees, Mr. Meyer-Stork was forced to raze the land and sell the damaged wood to make paper or particle board for half the usual price. Now, a picnic table that he built in a shady forest stands in the middle of a tangle of stumps and branches.
"I used to be surrounded by tall pines," he said. "Now I guess I'll have to move it."