The People’s Forest

October 5, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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"This forest belongs to the members." Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waldgenossenschaft Remscheid eG

In the Remscheid-based project ‘Wald 2.0’, everyone can have ‘their very own’ piece of forest. At the root of it is a coop that champions conservation and the common good.

On paper, Remscheid is a large city of 100,000 residents. But it does not seem like one. Surrounded by woods in all directions, its residents take the lush greenery for granted. However, the German forest is a cultivated landscape; for centuries, man has been shaping its look and condition. This is also the case in Remscheid, yet recently, this human impact is playing by new rules: The city boasts Germany’s first citizen-owned forest.

Making decisions as a community rather than leaving them to big investors

The story began at the Remscheid office for forestry, where Markus Wolff serves as municipal forestry director – and he is a busy man. In the life of a forester, great challenges are the rule rather than the exception. According to Wolff, modern foresters are primarily moderators: “They must strike a balance of interests between a prudent use of our valuable resource wood, conservational interests, and recreational purposes,” which means free public access to the forest.

“Yet all of this is tremendously difficult, because the group of owners is extremely fragmented, I can’t even reach the individual stakeholders,” he adds. In fact, there are about two million private forest owners in Germany. Individuals often own only tiny parcels. Many of the forest owners are unable to take care of their property; they live far away or don’t have the right skills.

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For Wald 2.0, even teenagers enter the woods. Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Waldgenossenschaft Remscheid eG

Often, the most pertinent course of action seems to be selling the forests, which are mostly inheritances. Since investors know this, too, they scout heavily forested communities for potential sellers who are looking to make a quick buck. Some years ago, Markus Wolff observed such an operation in a neighboring community: Businessmen descended on the town, paying forest owners handsome cash sums. In some cases, the trees were felled and hauled away the very next day. Residents complained, asking where the forest went. Wolff did not like any of this. He realized that a future-proof forest required a whole new approach.

Markus Wolff called this principle ‘Wald 2.0’, i.e. ‘Forest 2.0’. It is the product of the forest coop Remscheid, which he and a few supporters founded in 2013. There are two ways to become a member. Forest owners can contribute their properties and thus become shareholders. Those who do not own any forest can also subscribe to a share, starting at 500 Euros. The coop uses these funds to purchase more wooded land. All members are ideational forest owners and have the same vote within the coop, regardless of the size of their investment. The lands no longer belong to any single person and serve the common good. While they are meant to render a small revenue, profit is not the main motivation. 170 residents of Remscheid and beyond have already made investments. Thanks to them, the young coop now has equity in the amount of 570,000 Euros.

Champions of biodiversity and forest preservation

Markus Wolff promotes his project every day, networking his contacts. The organization is gaining a foothold and the workload is beginning to spread over more people, but he does admit: “This desk here is where all the strings are being pulled right now.”

Only part of his job is deskwork, so Wolff now puts on his work boots. He drives a little way out of town because he wants to show us a parcel of the coop forest. There are signs posted by the roadside: “This forest belongs to the forest coop Remscheid”. Yet those signs are not meant to keep people away; on the contrary, they invite people to join the coop. The land used to be a conventional forest, a bland monoculture of spruce trees, which it partially still is: countless skinny, tall trees, topped by an almost impenetrable canopy. It’s like a giant colonnade. “Do you see that?” Markus Wolff asks, pointing to a small clearing: “That was Kyrill.” The hurricane swept across North-Rhine Westphalia in January 2007, leaving a trail of devastation, especially in the forests.

The damage wrought now turns out to be an opportunity for ‘Wald 2.0’. New types of trees are planted into the former monotony, lime, beech, wild cherry, oak, silver fir and Douglas fir. The little saplings are protected from wildlife by light-colored, tube-like casings, the trademark of the coop’s work. Branches are lying around everywhere, dead tree stumps are scattered here and there. “This used to be considered chaotic and ineffective,” Wolff says. Today, however, it is commonly known how important dead wood is for biodiversity. Back in his office, Markus Wolff had already hinted at his vision and plan for the future: “Thirty years from now, we want these woods to be clearly recognizable as a coop forest.”

All this does not pass unnoticed. The coop regularly calls on the public to join them for planting. They invite Remscheid schools, delegates of the state parliament or the city council, or members of the public who are interested in conservation. ‘Wald 2.0’ is to be proof that a forest is more than just a bunch of trees. A forest needs attention and deserves to be appreciated as a diverse source of public welfare. The coop parcels are still scattered all around the city of Remscheid, but forestry expert Wolff has a plan to solve this problem, as well: He considers the dispersed parcels as roots that will gradually spread, adding more and more parcels until they fuse into one large forest. The forest coop Remscheid could, in turn, be the start of something even bigger, for many other foresters and individuals who used to have no interest in forests are starting to take an interest in their work.

Tags: co-operatives, community-managed forests, the commons