Treeless Europe?

July 22, 1991

Europe lost much of its virgin forest early, from sheer development. Britain's New Forest was an early effort at conservation, promulgated by William the Conqueror in 1079. The legends of Robin Hood reflect resistance by common people to the class implications of forest preservation laws. Part of the ferment of the American Revolution was resistance in New England to the king's monopoly on tree trunks suitable for ship masts. The need for such tree trunks helped stiffen London against American independence, and fueled the exploration that led to much of the conquests by the British Empire.

What would Europe be without its New Forest and Black Forest and counterparts in every country? It may find out. The fifth annual forest damage survey by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe found defoliation growing in 16 of the 26 countries surveyed. Particularly hard hit are older spruce, firs and oak.

Industrial air pollution is the chief culprit, of course, concentrated in Eastern Europe. But that's not the whole explanation. Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Eastern Germany had some of the worst damage increase in 1990 from the year before. But so did Britain and Portugal. Dry summers and mild winters added to the toll.

Europe gave the world the industrial revolution. But Europeans treasure their woodlands as integral to their culture. Europe must prove that development and nature can coexist, if it wishes Africa or South America or Australia also to heed the plea of environmentalists.

The Communist legacy in the soft-coal regions of Central and Eastern Europe may not be all that is wrong with those countries, but it is the worst of what's wrong. The children of Central Europe are entitled to grow up in clean air, amid sootless buildings and trees. From a purely ecological standpoint, the overthrow of communism came none too soon. But that alone is not enough, if the forest legacy of Europe is to be saved.

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