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Image from Moravia: The decline of the spruce tree has been progressing for years already – how long will the dying continue? © Dr. Jan Lubojacký, Forestry and Game Research Institute, Jílovište-Strnady/CZ

CENTRAL EUROPE

Unprecedented

Article by Gerd Ebner, translated by Susanne Höfler | 14.08.2019 - 12:42

No end in sight

"Things like these have always been around," some people keep saying. This may be true for windthrow and snow break events. The big difference between now and then: Climate change gives rise to significant changes in forests – in this light, no end seems in sight for calamities.

German television station MDR quotes the Czech minister of the environment, Richard Brabec, as follows: "We are fighting on all fronts, but currently, we are losing pathetically. Experts predict that within 10 to 15 years, Czech Republic will virtually not have any spruce forests left." 

To illustrate what this means: In Czech Republic, spruce is being grown on 1,376,000 ha. With a specified average stock of 261 sm³/ha, this would make for 360 million sm³ of spruce trunk wood. Last year, 18 million sm³ of spruce were harvested. At this speed, two decades of damaged wood to the catastrophic extent of last year would hit the market. 

Current year even worse than last year

For Germany and Austria, it must be assumed that damaged wood accrual in 2019 will be higher than in 2018. Germany saw a total of 31.9 million sm³ of damaged wood last year, according to Destatis. 11.3 million sm³ of this total were beetle-infested wood, 18.4 million sm³ windthrow wood. June beetle catch figures in Thuringia exceeded last year's figures 40 times. This hints at everything that is yet to come.

In German damage areas, a real market price does not exist anymore. Above certain supply volumes, the price often becomes secondary. "Begging for additional volume purchases" is how affected forest owners describe the sales situation.

Market ethics versus hard figures

From the buyers' perspective, a "political/ethical" price is preferable: How much is adequate in order to help my partners? "But actually, the situation is quite simple: Nobody can afford to pay €5/sm³ more than the market permits. Otherwise, you get yourself in trouble," as a big roundwood buyer puts it. "Market ethics versus hard figures: Nobody can afford to act against the market. Especially since revenues of German sawmills do not meet last year's levels anymore."

Months ago, the stumpage price level even hit €1/sm³ in certain damage areas.

Too little processing capacities

Regionally, damaged wood accrual is much higher than available processing capacities. Therefore, it must be assumed that a relevant damaged wood volume will only be processed in 2020. The consequences of in many cases thinned-out staffing level and cut-back forestry technology infrastructure of all types of forest owning are now becoming apparent and cannot quickly be changed.

To determine an altitude from which spruce does not stand a chance of existing anymore is impossible. When last year, the bark beetle was extensively active up to 600 m in Austria, in the current year these damages can already be found up to 700 m. "Just as important as the absolute change in degree centigrade or millimeters of precipitation is the relative change. It can at times be lower on 400 m above sea level than on 800 m – in that case, however, the ecological balance on 800 m is declining even quicker," one interviewee warns. Then, spruce might be doing better on 300 m than on 600 m above sea level.

Two, three, or even ten years?

Nobody can tell today for how long the damaged wood accrual in Central Europe will remain on this high level we are currently facing. "At least in the upcoming two to three years," still was the prediction last year. This year, however, many already speculate that "this could go on for another ten years." Wet, cool years would only delay the infestation, not stop it. And this is the big difference: Even during the most severe storms in the past it was possible to predict when the situation would return to normal again. The current situation, however, is completely devoid of a silver lining.

The author – influenced by his experience from almost three decades of industry-specific journalism – first assumed that by autumn at the latest a stronger fresh wood demand would emerge. What is new this time is the fact that a lot of wood is going into CLT production. And these producers are often satisfied with the mixed qualities that damaged wood offers them. Worse qualities are processed in the middle of elements. Superior quality wood is used on surfaces, for the production of which there is still enough supply.

Quality is still acceptable

Thus, roundwood quality is not yet that big of an issue since basic supply with sufficient quality is still intact. Setting up own or joint water storages is another option to secure qualities. The ethical dilemma of the current wood market is the following: "Nobody can demand: Leave the dead trees where they are, and only give me the good ones."

On certain sales markets, however, the required qualities are lacking now already; on others there is too much. As for sawn timber, the market has not yet reacted severely – with the only exception being accrual goods.

Pine is also in trouble

What is also new is that next to spruce, also more drought stress-resistant tree species are affected. Pine, for instance. Here, the primary problem are drought damages, pertinent bark beetle species that emerge are secondary. Beech, promoted in the course of Germany's forest restructuring over the past decades, experiences problems, as well. Especially Thuringia and Hesse are affected. While damaged spruce wood can be put to relatively good use in sawmills, there are certain beech assortments that "nobody wants" – such as large-diameter beech wood for which there is neither demand in terms of material nor in terms of thermal use. What to do with it?

This is why the order of the day is to ponder how worse qualities can be utilized. Next to the above-mentioned spruce, pine and beech trees virtually all other tree species are affected, as well.

Problems to reach positive balances

Damaged wood accruals affect forest owners of all sizes. Last year already, there was at least one German Federal Forest Administration with a negative balance. Word is that in Thuringia and Saxony, subsidies from the federal budgets are necessary. In Saxony and Brandenburg, federal state elections are coming up – this probably means that money will be spent.

Even giant BaySF (5.3 million sm³ annual cutting volume) is only aiming at a black zero for this year's balance, as chairman Martin Neumeyer informs. However, if this is even still feasible in light of the sustained fresh wood felling stop is questionable. 

Moreover, it remains to be seen how the roundwood price in Bavaria develops. In July 2019, it was over €10/sm³ or 15% below the already lowered 2019 price level.

Forest reform obsolete?

But relief in Bavaria may come from the very top: Prime minister Dr. Markus Söder said that the "BaySF do not primarily have to earn money anymore". This would mean a factual cancellation of the forest reform from 2006. During the most profitable times (2013/14), the BaySF made profits of just above €70 million/yr.

Characteristics of decline

The Central European damaged wood accrual is unprecedented – not as much in terms of volume as concerning other circumstances:

  • There is no end in sight.
  • In certain grow regions, the elimination of one or several tree species is possible.
  • All tree species are affected.
  • The extent is currently exceeding processing capacities.
  • Uncertainty which tree species to use for future plans.
  • Fresh wood demand is currently satisfied.