Environmentalists ringing alarm bells over ailing Czech forests

Environmental groups and experts in the field have been ringing alarm bells regarding the sorry state of Czech forests. The country’s largely coniferous forests are falling prey to climate change, bark beetle infestation and devastating wind-storms. Experts claim that measures are long overdue to help forests adapt to climate change. I spoke to Jan Skalík, from Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, about the gravity of the problem and what needs to be done.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “The situation is quite urgent, at least according to all the reports that scientists are bringing us. The state of the Czech forests is by far the worst in Europe, according to the forest evaluation of the ICP. This report is issued every year and it says that about 60 percent of Czech coniferous forests are severely affected by defoliation, by the loss of needles.”

So what at the main enemies – climate change, high winds or the bark beetle?

“All of these, but we at Friends of the Earth believe that the main source of the problem is the lack of effective action on the part of state organizations and ministries to adapt forests to the global climate changes, to change the country’s forest policy so as to guarantee sustainable development.”

Could you be more specific about why conifers are losing their needles?

“The main source of this problem is that the present climate conditions are very unfriendly to conifers, these trees require higher altitudes, while we have them across the Czech Republic where it is now hotter than they need and where you have a different water cycle than they require. As a result these forests are easily affected by bark beetle infestations and other problems.”

What aspects of climate change are we talking about?

“Right now it is the heatwaves and the droughts. The droughts in 2014 and 2015 were really severe in many regions of the Czech Republic and as a result these trees were more vulnerable to the spread of bark-beetle. That’s when the crisis started and it was made worse by the policy of the logging companies which did not do their work properly and in time and that allowed the bark-beetle to spread extensively.”

In what way are coniferous forests as opposed to mixed forests more vulnerable? I believe the roots of conifers do not run very deep…

Jan Skalík, photo: archive of Masaryk University BrnoJan Skalík, photo: archive of Masaryk University Brno “Yes, that it right and in makes them very vulnerable to changes in the level of underground water. Moreover the problem is not just the fact that they are conifers but the fact that they are planted in monocultures, which is quite unnatural. In mixed forests diseases do not spread so easily. A monoculture of broad-leaved trees is also bad for the same reasons.”

How do we come to have largely coniferous forests around the country?

“Basically it is linked to industrialization.”

So for economic reasons, for logging?

“That’s right, but actually at Friends of the Earth we do not think that this economic aspect should be completely abandoned, people will still need paper and furniture, so to have coniferous forests is also important, but in more environmentally-friendly plantations.”

So what remedies are called for?

“We would definitely urge the ministries of the environment and of agriculture as well as forest companies to implement changes, including legal changes, leading to a more balanced composition of forests much faster than is happening now. They are doing it already, but very slowly.”

So you are advocating a change to mixed forests, guaranteed by a change of legislation?

“Yes, quite so. We believe that the situation is urgent. Czech scientists have made a similar appeal to the government and there are clear data that in about forty years Czech coniferous forest could be on the brink of collapse because of the advancing climate changes.”

How long would it take to change the landscape effectively?

“Well, you can change about one percent of the scale of the forest every year and in this way you can change half of the forests in fifty years’ time. You can also have a more progressive approach by cutting trees before they are 100 years old and by planting trees in old-growth forests to change the age structure of the forest, to make it more complex and that is something we also support.”

You have launched an appeal in this respect. Are officials receptive? Is there a will to change the legislation?

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “Definitely the issue is vibrating in Czech society and in politics. So far the appeal has been signed by more than 10,000 people and there are parliamentary committees focusing on the issue – such as the committee for environmental matters or that for agriculture. So we believe –we are hoping for progressive change and are discussing these issues with people in the field, with foresters, with politicians to get the respective legislative proposals on the table.”

Finally, are there any lessons to be learnt from other countries which have tackled a similar problem?

“Well, clearly bark-beetle infestation and climate change are not just a threat to us – Germany, Austria, Poland and other countries are also heavily affected. But for instance in Switzerland, Austria or Germany they started addressing these issues twenty years ago when the data first became available and they started the adaptation process earlier. So in some ways they are twenty years ahead of us, their forests are more diverse and they are much less vulnerable to bark-beetle infestation or other stress factors to the forest.”