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25,000 TREES – were planted during the Bergwaldprojekt planting camp in the Harz from the 11th until the 24th of October 2020. I am proud that I could contribute on behalf of all Tree-Athlete supporters and donors to this great achievement.

I must admit when I signed up for the planting camp, I thought that it would be very monotonous and tedious work and I would probably question the whole tree-athlete approach after a couple of days ;). However, I was completely wrong and the planting camp was much more than just planting trees. The whole camp was more an outdoor education camp (see below 5 facts I learned) with a bunch of like-minded people and some knowledgeable and educated guides. I learned for example that the planted trees will be cut down again in 70 to 100 years. “Eheheheh ???, why are we planting trees then if they only use them for the wood industry again” I asked myself but our project coordinator Adrian could give me immediately an answer. If the Bergwaldprojekt would not cooperate with the public forestry departments, they would plant the trees which are likely to have the quickest economic output and neglect the implications for the complex forest ecosystems. Therefore, they would probably plant higher numbers of spruce trees again and some non-native trees like the northern red oak. The Bergwaldprojekt would not have any influence on the development of the German forests and consequently they cooperate with the forestry department to shape the future forests and strengthen the forest ecosystems.

My goal was to make the planting camp a personal Tree-Athlon and cycle from Braunschweig to Braunlage, run every evening and plant all the trees from the tree-athlete initiative. Unfortunately, my mum’s old bike only made it to Wolfenbüttel and I had to take the train instead. At least every night I could run from the planting fields back to the Northeimer hut where we were accommodated and where I camped with three others. The first couple of days the Harz showed why all the trees are under stress with sunshine and amazing skies. However, then the weather changed with strong winds and constant rain. I think it was the first time since Tasmania in 2016 that I put a waterproof jacket and pants on for a run.

Due to pandemic and hygiene regulations, the Bergwaldprojekt Planting Camp consisted of four separate planting groups (two for each week) plus one day planting activities – Neihaufeschte (https://www.bergwaldprojekt.de/projekte/sonderprojekte/neihaufeschte) – with more than 100 people on Saturday and Sunday and another corporate volunteering activity where the employees of a business plant trees for team-building purposes and learn how a symbiotic natural environment can also be replicated for their corporate environment.

After only one day it felt as we were a bunch of friends in the hut and even when the conditions were quite harsh, we laughed a lot and nobody complaint and all were still motivated to go out and give back to nature. One of my major concerns before coming to the camp was that I will not get enough food, as I and a lot of others know that I eat a lot especially when I run and plant trees ;). However, every day we were spoilt by  mainly regional and seasonal vegetarian/vegan food including a daily 3 course dinner. Our chef Arne made sure that we couldn´t use a lack of energy as an excuse.

Every day we went out to the field at 8 am and most days we planted until 5 pm. We planted in pairs, one doing the hole and the other one putting the seedling in and making sure that it was stable enough in the mineral layer of the soil and covered by humus and surface litter. My tag team partner Wiebke and I put 453 trees in the soil and every day it was such a great and rewarding feeling to look at how quickly the open spaces were filled with young trees.  At lunch time we went to the camp centre where we could warm and often dry up and reenergise with some forest soup (left overs topped up with water :)). When the afternoon hit and you could feel that the tiredness is slowly overcoming the planters, s ome chocolate cheered us up again and motivated us to plant the last trees for the day. Some days we stopped planting earlier to learn more about the forest and the surroundings. For example, we did an excursion with the forest ranger Harald, who is looking after the area. He explained why we even needed to be there and gave us many insights into the forest ecosystem in general and particularly in the Harz.

5 Facts I learned during the Planting Camp:

1st: The German term “Waldsterben” (Forst dieback) is a misleading term, because the forest is not dying but the trees are. The forest will recover and come back eventually but nobody knows in which form and how long it will take. Therefore, National Parks are experimental areas to see what happens if humans do not interfere and leave the nature to itself.

2nd: 2019 was the second consecutive year that was dry with only 640 mm precipitation (85 % of the required precipitation) and furthermore the average temperature of 10.7 (+2,1 K) was significant higher. More than 30 % of the forest area had insufficient soil water storage and this new climate in combination with the higher frequency of extreme weather events especially storms favoured the bark beetle infestation and put severe stress on the tree population of the Harz and has left many open areas in the Harz.

3rd: The bark beetle (Borkenkäfer) has always existed and has its role in a functioning forest ecosystem. Therefore, it is important to understand that it is not the forests’ enemy like it is often presented in the media. The bark beetle is generally only a threat to trees under stress and certain tree species like the spruce. In healthy conditions the trees secrete resins for their protection in response to an injury. Therefore, the bark beetle populations cannot grow exponentially and they are further controlled by the bark beetles’ natural enemies like the woodpecker or the ant beetle. However, the recent drought year have put the entire spruce monoculture in the Harz under severe stress, which has allowed the bark beetle population to grow exponentially with three to four generations per year.

4th: When the bark beetle has infested a tree under stress, it nourishes from and cuts off the tree’s supply of food and water. The beetle’s full reproduction circle takes about six weeks before hundreds of young ones leave the dead tree and infest more trees. For bark beetle control the foresters have those six weeks to identify infested trees, for logging them, and transport them away. This summer 2020 the Harvester machines and tree log transportation trucks worked 24/7 and still the bark beetle reproduced quicker than they could control bark beetle spread. To give you an idea of the severity of the damage,  before 2017 the forestry department Bad Lauterberg cut about 500-800 m³ due to bark beetle damage and up to 12,000 m³ wood in general a year. In 2020, they will have cut down 120,000 m³ due to bark beetle damage. Due to the oversupply of wood large proportions are used as fuel or for paper and not for long-term wood products, e.g. as a building material, furniture, etc. As a result of the oversupply the market price has dropped to a level where the logging and transportation costs outweigh the price. In addition, large proportions of the wood are now exported to China, sometimes for a m³ price of €0.60 (the production of one m³ costs about €22) for wood used for the paper production or “cheap IKEA furniture”. As you can see, climate change has complex and diverse consequences and the capitalist system still looks for and finds short-term solutions that contribute further to the changing climate with all its consequences.

5th: Back to 1st fact, the Harz forest is not dead and this means there is hope. Although forests react sensibly to changes in the climate as we can see it clearly in the Harz, they also play an important role for the climate change mitigation. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the forest ecosystem so the forests become more resistant to climate change. If we would leave the forests to itself now, we would risk that the open spaces (which are not usual for a healthy forest ecosystem) will be covered with a thick thorn bush layer of raspberries, blackberries and rowans that prevent young native trees like the birch, alder and beech to grow. Therefore, it is important to fill these open spaces as quickly as possible with native seedlings. If the forests succeed to fill those areas the ecosystem can find its natural equilibrium again and will contribute with its diverse functions to the climate change mitigation efforts. However, only this year in the area around the Wurmberg where we planted the trees another 300 hectares of forest were cleared and to ensure the ecosystems stability at least 150 hectares should be reforested with native trees. Up to 2,500 trees can be planted per hectare, so that simple mathematics show us that the 25,000 trees we planted are more than a drop on a hot stone but that the Harz needs a lot more trees.

This is why I continue my Tree-Athlete journey and if you would like to make a contribution, you would put a huge smile on my face: https://tree-athlete.org/donations/bergwaldprojekt/. The nature and I appreciate your help a lot, thanks a million (trees).

Unfortunately Covid-19 also affects the forest by not allowing the Bergwaldprojekt to carry out any more planting camps this year. However, I am excited and look forward to the day when it is possible again and then I will try to make a complete Tree-Athlon with all the three disciplines. I would love to do it together with you or at least the tree plantings. Therefore, Invite you to the next planting camp I participate in whenever and wherever that will be… You can find all the information about the 140 Bergwaldprojekt planting activities planned for next year here (https://www.bergwaldprojekt.de) or email me – flix@tree-athlete.org.

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