The perception of forestry by politicians is increasing. From the amendment of the “Federal Forest Act” anchored in the coalition agreement, to the frequently used “Future Dialogue on Forests”, and the “National Forest Strategy 2050”. With the EU‘s “Nature Restoration Law and Sustainable Use Regulation”, Brussels is also turning the gear. In times of energy and climate crisis, we spoke to Fabian Wendenburg, Managing Director at Familienbetriebe Land und Forst e.V., about how climate protection goes hand in hand with strengthening the economic power of rural areas and forested regions, and what opportunities and challenges the industry can expect in the new year.
Dear Mr. Wendenburg, who are the “Familienbetriebe Land und Forst e. V.” (eng: Family Businesses Agriculture and Forest) and what is your task in political Berlin?
We represent what is in the name: Family businesses in agriculture and forestry throughout Germany. Our members include around 2,000 owner-managed farms, representing 50,000 entrepreneurs, employees and family members. Our member farms are responsible for about 5 percent of the agricultural and forestry land throughout the country. Our task is to represent their interests in politics and in public. In doing so, we focus on the protection of private property, our contribution to climate protection and the strengthening of economic power in rural areas.
The topic of agriculture and forestry has moved higher and higher up the political agenda: there is a Forest Act, a National Forest Strategy 2050 and the Future Dialogue on Forests. As an association, how do you assess the newly (awakened) political interest in the forest and what else would you like to see from politicians?
The increased interest in the topic of forestry is related to two parallel developments. Firstly, the crisis: over 500,000 hectares of forest in Germany have been severely damaged by drought, storms and beetle infestation – the equivalent of around 700,000 soccer fields. Secondly, with the realisation that without a healthy forest and sustainable wood production, we will not be able to get a grip on climate change. Forests and wood compensate for up to 14 percent of emissions in Germany! Against this background, we would like to see three things from policymakers: First, freedom, because the German forest is too diverse to be regulated with a one-size-fits-all solution from Berlin or even Brussels. Second, a holistic approach: anyone who removes forest areas from management in Germany or Europe – which is currently being planned – will only shift production to other countries and will not help climate protection. Thirdly, a reward for the many services that the forest provides for society, first and foremost climate protection. If emitters pay a CO2 levy, measurable services that strengthen the forest as a climate protector should in turn be remunerated.
In its coalition agreement of 2021, the current federal government has formulated its intention to amend the existing Forest Act. Based on your practical knowledge, what new aspects would you like to see in it? Which points would you develop further from the existing law?
In addition to the freedom mentioned above, it is essential that use and protection continue to be considered in alignment in the future. Sustainable forest management, for which Germany is the envy of the world, should remain the guiding principle of the Federal Forest Act. A second goal is to create the framework for directing private capital into the forest. This capital from companies and citizens is available, and many want to invest in the forest for specific lines such as climate protection and species conservation. The Federal Forest Act should create the conditions for this. Third, there is a great need for modernisation in important details: the road safety obligations of forest owners must be adapted to the major expansion of routes and lines. And if new digital applications specifically direct mountain bikers and horseback riders to inaccessible forest areas, advertising or inducing such inadmissible forms of access should be prohibited.
The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has also initiated the Future Dialogue on Forests in July 2022. Which aspects are particularly important to you in the consultations and how do you as an association assess the dialog instrument frequently used by the current federal government?
Dialog is important because the various players can learn a lot from each other and because it gives us the chance to contribute our positions. However, I am concerned to see that such formats are increasingly becoming a pretence, where ministries and associations are kept busy but the impact on actual legislation is then manageable. This must be prevented in the amendment of the Federal Forest Act or in the implementation of the Natural Climate Protection Action Program. Then we will gladly continue to participate.
As you have already indicated above, you represent a very diverse group of companies – and therefore, I would assume, also have a considerable range of topics to deal with. Which political processes will you be paying particular attention to in Berlin and Brussels in 2023?
Our particular focus is indeed on Brussels. The EU‘s “Nature Restoration Law and Sustainable Use Regulation” threatens massive intervention in management and ownership. As a consequence, jobs in rural areas would be endangered, the domestic food and wood supply would be weakened, and because of the displacement effects mentioned above, the climate would not be helped either.
At the national level, we are primarily concerned with the Federal Forest Act, the Natural Climate Protection Action Program and the tax treatment of renewable energy sources.
And when the Scientific Service of the German Bundestag prepares the ground for an asset levy, we also prick up our ears. The assets of our member companies lie in their soils. A tax on assets of any kind would not be paid for by the earnings and would lead to the farms being abandoned.
Now that it’s the beginning of the year, what are your three (New Year’s) wishes for 2023 addressed to federal policymakers?
- We need to think more broadly about the issue of security of supply. We need to avoid new dependencies not only on gas and oil, but also on food, wood and other bioenergy sources.
- We need a moratorium on burdens. While companies fear a permanent weakening of their competitiveness, the EU Commission in particular is preparing a plethora of interventions in entrepreneurship and management. This does not fit together.
- We must think globally about climate and species protection. It is good if Germany is a pioneer. But if no one follows suit, it is of no use to anyone.