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German forests face threat from bark beetles following years of drought

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The dense, green woodlands of Germany that gave rise to the "Grimms' Fairy Tales" are turning gray and dying. Forest still covers a third of the country, but 80% of all trees are sick. Weakened by years of drought, they now face another onslaught - bark beetles. As Esme Nicholson reports, some blame commercial forestry, but others say it's climate change.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Andreas Salamon (ph) wends his way through coniferous woodlands on a hillside in Germany's central Harz region. Salamon is a forester out looking for damage, and he doesn't have to search for long.

ANDREAS SALAMON: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: He points to tiny holes in the bark of a spruce, the work of a beetle that has infested this entire region.

SALAMON: (Speaking German)

NICHOLSON: Salomon shrugs. He says that with most trees in dire need of rain, the bark beetles are only finishing off the job. But it hurts all the same.

SALAMON: (Through interpreter) I won't deny I'm sad to see a tree die a hundred years too soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

NICHOLSON: His melancholy is shared by tourists in this popular hiking spot. Silke Rohbatscher says she and her husband have been coming here for years and now barely recognize the trails.

SILKE ROHBATSCHER: (Through interpreter) We plan our hikes using Google Maps, which still shows photos of lush, green forests. But you can no longer find the footpaths because the trees they led through have disappeared.

NICHOLSON: The changed landscape also comes as a shock to business owner Wolf Goetz. He says it affected him so much that he co-founded the Future Forest Initiative, which brings together tech startups and foresters to find solutions.

WOLF GOETZ: Five to seven years ago, everything was deep, dark forest. The first time when I saw it with these gray trees with no leaves on it, it was a bit like a nuclear bomb was here.

NICHOLSON: He says it's not difficult to get people on board because forests means so much to the Germans, from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich to the fairy tales of Brothers Grimm.

ULRIKE ZITZLSPERGER: The forest is a place of fear, mystification, but at the same time, it's a resource.

NICHOLSON: Ulrike Zitzlsperger is professor of German literature at the University of Exeter.

ZITZLSPERGER: In fairy tales, very often, the antagonist is banned to the woods, and then when they do emerge, they come resourcefully equipped to make their point.

NICHOLSON: Andreas Salomon says foresters like him are often cast as fairy-tale bad guys and that some blame the spruce monocultures of commercial forestry for the current situation. So he's experimenting with species from the U.S., like Douglas fir and red oak.

HENRIK HARTMANN: We don't have to. Go and see spruce trees - right? - to see the misery that German forests are facing at the moment.

NICHOLSON: Professor Henrik Hartmann is head of the Julius Kuhn Institute for Forest Protection. He says the real issue is not industrial forestry but climate change, which is affecting all species, even those considered indigenous.

HARTMANN: If you look up, you will see lots of sky. Ten or 12 years ago, we thought that beech is actually our best option for climate change. And along with the trees, our hopes died. Then we thought, well, we still have lots of oak, and oak actually has a deep rooting system. Oak's going to be our future. Well, now if you look up, that doesn't look very much like future, does it?

NICHOLSON: Hartmann says it's difficult to envisage the future of Germany's forests, and Salamon agrees.

SALAMON: (Through interpreter) I'm not going to put a bet on what these woods will look like in a hundred years. Maybe this will all be palm trees.

NICHOLSON: He quips that maybe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are from Hollywood, after all. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Quedlinburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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