Compensation for the tesla clearances : become over forest

In Brandenburg, a new mixed forest is being created on 520 hectares. But is that possible at all: Making forest? And what trees should they be?

An article by

Uwe Rada

24.1.2022, 12:22 p.m

N o last sip from the ther-mos-can, then they sit up. Three of the five seats on the planter are occupied on this cold, damp January day. The Romanian planters grab the seedlings from the bag and put them into the one meter deep furrow. The column following the planter tramples the ground around the young tree. It’s a sight that’s new to Brandenburg. When already under employment of heavy equipment a new forest is made?

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"Today there are birch and oak trees," says Axel Behmann. The tall man with the leather boots pays a visit to the planting column in Grunow in eastern Brandenburg. "30.000 trees we are planting today," he explains. If everything goes according to plan, by the end of January, 900.000 saplings on 150 hectares in the Mark Brandenburg field. "Natural Space for Generations" is the name of the project that Behmann is leading. His task: to make forest to compensate for deforestation on the Tesla Gigafactory site.

To get the Tesla forest into the ground on time, Behmann had Germany’s largest planting machine built. Eleven meters wide it is, and expensive it was too: "100.000 euros we have invested," says the trained farmer, who now makes in Wald. "We are here Pio-nie-re."In fact, Germany’s largest new forest is currently being planted in the Oder-Spree district. 520 hectares are it, which are to be afforested between Grunow and the circle city Beeskow, which corresponds to 730 soccer fields. By the end of this January, five hectares will have been cleared in Grunow.

Forest as a substitute for forest

If forest falls away, it must be replaced: This is how the state of Brandenburg demands it. Section 8 of the state forest law states what must be done in the event of a "conversion of forest to other uses": "The adverse effects of a conversion on the protective or recreational functions of the forest must be compensated for."

However, these "compensation and replacement measures" do not have to take place in the immediate vicinity of the cleared forest. The only important thing is that they take place in the same natural area. This is the case in Grunow. Both the cleared Tesla forest in Grunheide and the new Tesla forest being created 60 kilometers further east belong to the East Brandenburg Heath and Lakes natural area.

The forest in Germany

Forest land With 11.1 million hectares of forest, Germany is the most densely forested country in Central Europe. Contributing to this were the reforestations in the 19. and 20. Century.

Forest distribution The most densely forested German states are Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse, with 42.3 percent of the country’s land area, followed by Saarland (39.3), Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg (38 each). Shooting light is Schleswig-Holstein (11).

Forest owners Private owners have the largest share of the German forest with 44 percent. These include not only aristocrats such as the Thurn and Taxis, but also many small owners. State forests account for 30 percent, municipal forests 20 percent.

Forest structure According to Nabu, the most common tree species are spruce and pine (25 and 23 percent), copper beech (16) and oak (11).

Primeval forest Actually, the federal government wanted to take 5 -percent of forests out of management by 2020. But so far it is only just under 3 percent. (wera)

Behmann’s "Nature Space for Generations" is located in a former agricultural farm, and the paths in front of the office building are unpaved. "I came to Brandenburg from Schleswig-Holstein in 2017 to convert a farm," says 59-year-old Behmann.

Location of the new forest

But then he came into contact with Brandenburg’s land agency, which promotes compensation and replacement measures. "Tesla has presented us with a whole new opportunity," says Behmann, who lives in Beeskow. "So we successively converted the operation in the direction of reforestation."

Axel Behmann has banished the smell of the farmer’s barn from his office. Modern furniture made of steel, large work surfaces on which maps can be spread out, the coffee machine can not only filter but also espresso.

This is Grunow

Grunow is located in the Oder-Spree district in eastern Brandenburg and has 350 inhabitants. Together with Dammendorf it forms the community Grunow-Dammendorf. Grunow is located in the Schlaube Valley Nature Park, named after the Schlaube River, which is considered the most beautiful stream valley in Brandenburg. The nature park itself consists of three quarters forest. The forest area between Beeskow and Frankfurt (Oder) is one of the largest in Brandenburg. Grunow has a rail connection to Frankfurt (Oder) and Konigs Wusterhausen. (wera)

For the 173 hectares of pine forest that Tesla cleared in Grunheide, the U.S. carmaker has contractually committed to reforest 294 hectares. There are two reasons why 520 hectares of new forest are being created between Beeskow and Grunow and 150 hectares of extensively farmed grassland are being added. At one point, Oegelner Flieb GmbH and Co. KG, the society of landowners behind "Nature Space for Generations," got together 670 hectares of land. On the other hand, the land agency oversees not only Tesla’s compensatory measures, but also numerous other, albeit significantly smaller.

"This is a project that is also about creating contiguous forest areas," Behmann says proudly.

Agriculture in crisis

There are also good soils in East Brandenburg. In the lowlands of the Oder and Neisse rivers and in the Oderbruch, vegetables and cereals are grown, and in Guben even wine is grown. The Spreewald is cucumber and vegetable country. But on the uplands between the flood plains, the soils have always been poor. In Grunow, LPG employees even drove to the nearby Oelse until 1989 and used excavators to dig peat to improve the soil.

The fact that Oegelner Flieb GmbH and Co. KG now makes forest instead of cultivating fields has to do with climate change. "On poorer soils like in Grunow, heat and drought have a particularly negative effect," says Behmann. Some farmers had tried in the past to switch to short-rotation plantations, i.e. to plant fast-growing woods such as poplars, willows or black locust trees and sell them as energy wood to biogas plants. "But as the price of oil has fallen, the market has collapsed," he explains. "There is a lot of pressure in the region here to reorient itself."Photovoltaics, for example, are now a natural part of the mix of uses on the land of many agricultural cooperatives.

For Behmann, Tesla therefore came just at the right time, even if he knows that the Tesla forest is not without controversy. "The agricultural offices were skeptical," he admits. Agricultural land, which is also the goal of politics in Brandenburg, should not be converted without necessity. So a compromise was sought. "150 hectares of grassland also means that this legally remains agricultural land," says Behmann. And extensive use contributes to biodiversity, she says. "We only mow once a year and take the mowing away so that the habitat is preserved."

Beech seedling

If the beech survives the second year, it has probably made it Photo: Uwe Rada

Peatlands are not compensation

Birch and oak, plus maple, beech, poplar and pine – the Tesla forest is to be a mixed forest with 70 percent deciduous trees and 30 percent conifers. This is the good news. But couldn’t there have been other ways to compensate for the clearing in Grunheide??

Isabell Hiekel is a landscape planner and moved into the Brandenburg state parliament in 2019 for the Bundnisgrunen party. As spokeswoman for the parliamentary group for the environment and nature conservation, she advocates the rewetting of moors. "Such projects," she thinks, "could also be recognized as compensatory measures."Because much more than forests, intact peatlands store carbon dioxide.

The nature conservation organization Nabu had also campaigned for alternative compensatory measures. "Hedge plantings or a floodplain forest are also com-pen-sa-tion possibilities," Brandenburg’s Nabu head Friedhelm Schmitz-Jersch told the taz two years ago. "We don’t just want area."

But Brandenburg’s forest law offers little leeway. If forest is removed, it must necessarily be replaced by forest again. The Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald has therefore responded to Nabu’s proposals with a blatant threat. If necessary, the requirements of the state forest law will be enforced with an action by associations, it was said.

Without funding, however, alternative projects are not worthwhile. A planned moorland project on Tesla’s compensation areas has since been shelved. It would have required a permanent supply of water. Too elaborate. Too expensive.

Isabell Hiekel is not only the Green Party’s spokesperson for nature conservation, but also for agriculture and forestry. As such, she finds the reforestation in Grunow to be "in the green," she says. However, he says, thought also needs to be given to how the Tesla forest can become as climate-resistant as possible in the future. "We don’t know today exactly what will happen tomorrow, so we need to be prepared for anything." Hiekel therefore does not rule out experimenting with other tree species. "They should be drought-resistant and insensitive to late frosts," she says.

No room for experiments

Axel Behmann has meanwhile moved on to another area in Grunow, where he is reforesting. Not an arable field like the one where the Romanian column planted birch and oak, but a former short-rotation plantation. He left some of the poplars standing, they are to help the new forest grow. "For us, these are shade trees," he explains. "They form a natural screen against solar radiation."

Behmann also simulates a bit of forest where he plants clover. "Our experience after the first planting was that it is right to build up a soil organically in such a way that it is shaded like in the forest." Only that the soil of this future forest is not covered with moss, but with clover. It not only keeps the couch grass away. "It is also important that the soil is well rooted. The fine roots of the trees can then go into the root passages of the clover."

In Ragow, Behmann has planted clover and erected perches Photo: Uwe Rada

Of course, Behmann knows that old and new forests cannot be compared with each other. That’s why he’s bothered by criticism like that of forester and bestselling author Peter Wohlleben, who thinks new forests should only be created through natural regeneration, i.e., through seeding. These natural forests, which are also no longer to be managed, are the best answer to the challenges of climate change, he says. Axel Behmann thinks that this criticism misses the point: "We’re not converting forests here, we’re building new ones," he emphasizes.

However, Behmann would like to experiment more with new forest construction. "Why not plant dou-gla-sie, hemlock or Lebanon cedar as well?", he asks. "We know from the Lebanon cedar that it can withstand the heat."

Behmann gets support in this question from Jens Schroder. At his chair at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, Schroder conducts research on silviculture and forest structure. On an experimental area of 60 hectares, he and Behmann want to find out whether non-native tree species as "climate trees" cope better with heat and drought stress than the native mix of pine, oak and beech. "Alternative tree species," Schroder calls it.

But the forest expert finds with the responsible green environment minister Axel bird so far no hearing. "There is a decree in the ministry that provides only native woody plants for the compensatory measures," Schroder explains. "Only this can be promoted. If we tried out other tree species, we would have to do it on our own account." But this calculation would be made without the farmers. "They don’t give us the soils for free, they count on the subsidy."

Birch and oak trees are planted on three of the five plots Photo: Uwe Rada

Schroder would like to see more courage, especially in the Tesla forest with its large area. "Of course, it would have a political signal effect to say that we’re trying out other tree species here as well."But Schroder also knows that Vogel is not only responsible for forestry in his ministry, but also for nature conservation. "Nature conservation is putting on the brakes, they don’t want to set a precedent," he says.

On an area in Ragow near Beeskow, Behmann can already see what the forest of the future will look like when it is one year old. The oaks are about 60 centimeters high

Isabell Hiekel also hopes that more will be possible in the future when it comes to silviculture: "Here, we certainly need to carefully replant," says the Green Party member. For this, the goals for forest management under the conditions of climate change would have to be redefined. "That’s a task that’s now at hand."

Accounting after five years

For Axel Behmann this debate probably comes too late. He will likely have to do without "al-ter-na-tive-tree species" for his Tesla forest. So he hopes that the native trees will also do their job.

On an area in Ragow near Beeskow, Behmann can already see what the forest of the future will look like when it is one year old. The oaks here are about 60 centimeters high. The weeds that overtop them don’t worry Behmann. The problem are the mice. That is why he has set up three perches for birds of prey. "It’s the most natural and cheapest way to fight the mice," he says, laughing.

Losses in Ragow amounted to less than 10 percent in the first year, Behmann says. "When the young trees get through the second year, they’ll probably be through," he hopes. "Then the roots are so deep that they can get to the nutrient-rich soil layers and water even in dry conditions."He doesn’t have to fear game browsing, all areas of the Future Forest are fenced off.

The furrow is ripped open a meter with the excavator. In the container are the seedlings Photo: Uwe Rada

50 hectares were planted by Behmann in 2021, 150 hectares will be planted in 2022, including the areas in Grunow. The environmental impact assessment is underway for the remaining 320 acres. Whether the seedlings will actually become forest one day will be decided five years after reforestation. Then the forest is taken down. "We are paid according to success," says Behmann. "If we have losses of more than 15 percent, we have to replant. If there are dry years like 2017 and 2018 again, then perhaps people will say it would have been wiser to stay in agriculture."

It would be particularly serious if the invasive black locust trees that were planted in some short-rotation plantations and cleared for the new forest were to come back up again. "As soon as there’s just one black locust tree on the site, it’s not recognized as a forest," Behmann says.

What is forest? With the large reforestations in the 19. In the century, this was not an issue. Forest was commercial forest, and in Brandenburg commercial forest was pine forest. The forest tick of romanticism had given way to an economic view. With the reforestations after the Second World War, those "pine fields" like the forest near Grunheide, which Tesla cleared, finally came into being.

But what is the forest of the future? Axel Behmann knows that he is in the middle of a discussion in which there are still many questions. But there is one thing he does not want to accept. "We’re always asked -why we’re planting the new forest in rows," he says. "That, of course, has to do with machine planting."But even pine forests like the one in Grunheide were once reforested in rows and rows. "In our case," says Behmann, "something new is being created." Together with the grassland areas and the forest fringe, which he also builds, a varied landscape grows up. "After all, we don’t want to put down a nailed-up forest."

As Axel Behmann climbs into the car to drive back to the planter, he becomes reflective: "Of course I’m happy to be doing something that no one has done before," he says. "But I also have respect for it."

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