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Solidarity as forest sector clears up after storm disaster in France, Germany and Switzerland

Published: 18 April 2000


"Despite solidarity, three months after the hurricanes of unprecedented violence that swept across western Europe, causing major damage to forests, a number of bottlenecks, such as labour and transport capacities, may delay the recovery of forest areas" says Mr. Christopher Prins, head of the Timber Section of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE).

Clear-up work started the day after the December 1999 storms, and will continue for two years at least. Forest owners and professionals, inside and outside the damaged regions, as well as governments and wood consumers are demonstrating exemplary solidarity, working together to minimize the impact of the storm and to start restoring the forests.

The UN/ECE Timber Committee continues to monitor the situation at the international level. Highlights of a recent meeting in Geneva are given below. Further details are on the Timber Committee website.


Bottlenecks: Labour and transport capacities are the main bottlenecks in clearing the huge volumes of wood thrown down across the European forests. Many logging crews have been transferred within the EU, but more are needed. Work permits and temporary visas are sometimes difficult to obtain. There are not enough trucks and railway wagons to transport all the windthrown wood harvested. Governments are relaxing some of the maximum load restrictions on roads to enable more efficient use of existing transport capacity.

Fire and insects - reducing the risks: As it dries, the windblown wood presents ideal conditions for massive fires and insect outbreaks, thus threatening forests not affected by the storms themselves. This makes it urgent to clear the wood as fast as possible. Foresters are monitoring the risk and taking preventive measures, such as basing fire suppression equipment (e.g. water bombers) near the storm damaged area.


Government assistance programmes: All three governments as well as local or regional authorities have put in place programmes to help the forest sector. The measures concentrate on accelerating the clearing operations, minimizing the economic impact of the storms and laying the basis for reconstruction. In France, some communities are being compensated for reduced harvest revenues due to postponed logging in their less-damaged forests. Representatives of the governments shared this information in Geneva and details are posted on the website, with links to the official national information sources.

Effects on wood markets - spreading the impact over time and finding new outlets for wood: The sudden massive over-supply of roundwood, equivalent to 1-3 years of normal harvest in these three countries has caused severe market disruption. Despite the increased costs of harvesting windblown trees, wood prices have dropped sharply, and caused major economic damage to forest owners, both public and private. Programmes and strategies have been developed and applied, in consultation with all market partners to minimize this damage. Different approaches have been applied in different countries, but the main lines are:

Reduce fellings in undamaged forests

Provide subsidies and low-interest loans to reduce the high costs of harvesting and transporting damaged wood

Where possible, spread the market impact over time by storing logs for one or two years

Find new export markets

Develop wood energy markets

"All these efforts are helped by the fact that forest products markets are quite strong at the moment. Roundwood prices are stabilizing after an initial drop, but are still rather low in France and Switzerland. It is likely however that very large volumes – perhaps even as much as half – of the windblown wood will never enter normal commercial channels. It will be left in the forest or used locally as fuelwood" concludes Christopher Prins.

Better information is needed to bring together buyers and sellers and to avoid unnecessary price falls due to confusion and lack of transparency on disturbed markets. Web-based "market places" have been set up for wood sales and for harvesting services and equipment.


Safety first! Harvesting windblown wood is extremely dangerous work (much more dangerous than normal forest harvesting), and should only be carried out by well-trained and fully equipped professionals. Without special training, forest workers and forest owners should not attempt it. Already 20-30 fatal accidents (of which 13 in Germany alone) have been reported in 2000, and the number is unfortunately likely to rise. Everyone concerned should take every precaution to ensure that the work is carried out as safely as possible. The Timber Committee website contains a Manual on Acute Forest Damage and the professional press has run articles on accident prevention. Government agencies and websites are also providing help and advice on safety aspects.


A few positive consequences: Not everything is negative however, and there will be some long-term positive consequences of the storms. The new export markets and outlets could be valuable to the sector. Promotion of wood energy, which is renewable and does not raise the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, could have long-term value. New networks and associations have arisen from the movement of solidarity between members of the forest sector community. The international movement of labour and modern equipment may spread efficient and safe harvesting technology. The event also represents an opportunity to rethink future management objectives.

The storm damage to forests has made the public more sensitive to the value of forest management, the multiple uses of forestry and the role of foresters and forest authorities. The re-birth of the damaged forests over the next years will once again demonstrate the resilience and renewability of the European forest, and the commitment of forest owners and authorities to sustainable forest management.

For further information please contact:

Mr. Ed Pepke,

Forestry Officer—Marketing, Timber Section, Trade Division,
Palais des Nations, room 439-1,
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE),
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland,
Tel.: +(41 22) 917 2872,
Fax: 917 0041,
E-mail: Ed.Pepke@unece.org,
Website: http://www.unece.org/trade/timber

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United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05