Ancient Forest Home of Squatter Communities Is Doomed by Coal

Germany’s Hambach Forest sits in the crosshairs of coal mining, stirring debate about conservation and energy production.

By Michelle Z. Donahue
Published 15 Apr 2018, 13:35 BST

When he started leading guided nature walks in western Germany’s Hambach Forest four years ago, Michael Zobel was happy if a handful of people showed up.

In November 2017, almost 400 people turned out. Zobel shepherded them along on a couple of well-worn trails, but avoided guiding them into the heart of the forest. Drawn there by a social media blitz announcing the onset of another logging season, the group had come to witness what might be the final days of this ancient forest.

Zobel doesn’t wish to inadvertently damage what remains of Hambach, the last remnant of a sylvan ecosystem that has occupied this part of the Rhine River plain between Aachen and Cologne since the end of the last ice age. But Zobel does take his groups to the forest’s edge—the cutting line, he calls it—so people can see for themselves what’s happening to Hambach.

“There are a lot of people who come out, but then say they can’t go on the guided tours because they’re sad about what’s left,” Zobel says. “You could once go hours without meeting anyone.”

Since 1978, the German energy company RWE has owned and managed the land on which Hambach sits. Each year, the company strips away a bit more of the edge of the forest to expand its open-pit lignite mine, from which it extracts an average of 49.6 million tons of brown coal each year. Only 10 percent of the forest’s original footprint remains. 

Composed primarily of oaks and hornbeams, the forest is the only one like it in this part of Europe, Zobel says. Because people have taken timber from Hambach for fuel and building materials at least since Roman times, it cannot be considered an Urwald, a primordial forest, similar to Poland’s old-growth Białowieża Forest. Yet it is still a rare forest type: according to a 2013 survey, oak-hornbeam forests like Hambach cover only 82,900 acres, or 4.1 percent of the 2 million acres of protected forest in Germany. In total, 28 million acres of Germany are forested.

In 1978, when RWE acquired Hambach, the forest covered 13,590 acres (roughly the size of Manhattan). Today, roughly 10 percent of that stand remains. Though it’s possible to quantify the degree to which Hambach shrinks each year as the lignite mine expands, there’s another, less tangible loss: the ecological data from such an old and uncommon ecosystem.

A Dearth of Data

The two decades Zobel has worked as a wilderness guide and outdoor educator have armed him with a wealth of information about virtually any plant, tree, or animal he encounters in Hambach. He points out bats, like the endangered Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteinii)—or the holes in older trees where they might be roosting—and badgers. And no walk in a German forest would be complete without a discussion of its mushrooms, edible or otherwise.

But Zobel is not a scientist. And though forests with compositions like Hambach have been studied in other parts of Europe—particularly in the Czech Republic, Italy, and Sweden—Hambach itself seems to have never been the focus of its own bottom-up ecological assessment.

None of the half-dozen German forest researchers contacted for this article said they had any specific knowledge of Hambach or its ecosystems, outside of an awareness that the forest existed, or knew of anyone who had conducted any research there. RWE spokesman Guido Steffen also says that to his knowledge, no other scientific studies have been conducted in Hambach.

“The problem is that forests in Germany haven’t been researched very well. Most research is for industry, about how fast a tree can grow or its quality as a timber species,” says Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of the popular book The Hidden Life of Trees. He adds that entomologist friends cannot find funding for research on newly discovered insect species, and that the attention paid to preserving biodiversity in Germany amounts to lip service. “In reality we don’t know very much about these ecosystems,” he says.

Related: These Ancient Trees Have Stories To Tell

Wohlleben argues that the “soil history” of a forest that has never been cleared for agricultural use is so rare anywhere in Europe that every remaining scrap should be preserved. Because a forest begins far below ground, he contends—trees communicating with one another via fungal channels, for example—once a forest is ploughed up, it can never truly be restored. Even forests that sit on what was once Middle Age farmland are substantially different from soils that have only been occupied by trees, he says.

There’s research to back him up on that: Cambridge researcher Merlin Sheldrake’s work on mycorrhizal fungal communities connecting tree roots has been dubbed the “Wood Wide Web.” And other studies point to long-term reduction in biodiversity in regenerated forests, even hundreds of years later.

“We think about birds and mammals, big things that are pretty, but there are mites, worms, bacteria, and fungi that are also important for a forest that just haven’t been researched,” Wohlleben says. “Broadleaf forests used to cover 80 percent of Germany, and now we have just a few of those forests left. Every little spot that remains is important.”

Christian Dietz, a bat scientist who conducts biological surveys and develops bat relocation plans in old forests like Hambach, says that even under official protection, management of old oak forests varies wildly from site to site, making conservation of resident fauna problematic.

“Some landowners protect and manage their old forests very well, but others overexploit their old trees, even in protected areas,” Dietz says. “And many specialised species can't survive the gap between recent losses and long-term replacement.”

Hambi’s Human Squatters

One feature of Hambach, which locals and advocates fondly refer to as “Hambi,” is its population of semi-permanent squatters. During logging season, October through April, these protestors lodge themselves in elaborate treehouses they’ve wedged into some of the tallest trees that remain, 80 feet in the air.

Through the actions of these and other advocates to “Save Hambach,” a German court issued a stay in December of 2017 that forbade any further logging by RWE. But on April 1, the stay expired and German courts granted RWE the permit it requested to resume logging in the fall of 2018. Unless a new stay is issued, RWE will resume cutting trees in October.

Legal actions have centred around Europe’s 1992 Habitats Directive, which protects 1,000 threatened animal species and 200 types of rare habitat. Hambach is home to 13 of those species, including the Bechstein’s bat and eight other species of bat, two species of toad, the agile frog (Rana dalmatina), and the endangered common dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius).

RWE has argued that because it acquired and began developing Hambach well before the Habitats Directive came into existence, the forest is not protected by the directive. So far, the courts have agreed.

Steffen says the company is sensitive to the impacts the mine has on the surrounding area and has been diligent about replacing forest cover and relocating species affected by logging. Over 10 million trees have been planted, he says, and an assessment of the flora and fauna of the forest was conducted over four years ago in order to develop relocation plans for animals that could not easily move themselves, like the Bechstein's bat and common dormouse.

He says RWE has gone to great lengths to provide for species affected by the mining operation: planting tree corridors to enable animals to find their way to other suitable forest areas, installing bat boxes, scooping up entire colonies of ants and relocating them to the replanted forest area north of the mine.

Dietz, the bat expert, says success probably isn’t that simple.

“While roost mitigation with bat boxes is working for Myotis bechsteinii, at least regionally, it is much more difficult to replace foraging sites and especially hibernation sites—some of the forest species hibernate in big trees,” Dietz says. “And as always: the larger the losses and the more species live there, the lower the chance to replace habitats and populations.”

Future Lake?

After mining ceases in the mid 2020s, the pit will become a recreational lake, and 35 square kilometres, or 13.5 square miles, will have been replanted with shoots, sprouts, and seeds sourced from the original Hambach stand.

Protestors, too, have been harvesting shoots and seeds from Hambach to plant elsewhere, in an effort to conserve some of Hambach’s genetic identity even when the forest is gone. A Hambach protestor who only identified himself as “Jus” says that occupiers share seedlings with people who come for Zobel’s walks, and Hambach trees have been adopted out across Europe.

Steffen says the coal beneath the forest is critical for ensuring Germany’s energy independence, as well as reaching its green energy goals. The last of the country’s nuclear power stations will power down by 2022, and RWE insists their coal energy is necessary to close the gap between the loss of nuclear and sufficient solar and wind power coming online. He estimates 400 million tons of lignite will remain in the ground after mining operations cease.

“I’ve known Hambach for decades, before the mine. It was a great forest,” Steffen says. “It’s a pity it must be logged. We’re not doing this because we have fun logging trees, but out of economic necessity. Germany needs energy.” 

Zobel concedes that there’s so little of Hambach left that what remains is highly degraded. Still, he hopes what's left can be preserved.

“I dream there won’t be any more cutting, and then we have to think about what happens then,” Zobel says. “How can we help this forest survive? Maybe they can refill the hole and try to plant the forest again. In comparison to the rest of the world, Hambach is just a little problem, but it’s here.”


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