Hans Carl von Carlowitz

The father of sustainable forestry

#sustainability #forestry #timber

More than 300 years ago, Hans Carl von Carlowitz came up with the idea of sustainability as an economic concept. A tax accountant and mining administrator, he planted the seed of an idea that is has transformed the way we look at the world.
- Guest contribution by Dr. Horst Sprossmann of ThüringenForst -

In the early 18th century, Hans Carl von Carlowitz worked as the head mining administrator of the court of Kursachsen in Freiberg, a town located less than 150 kilometres from Erfurt at the foothills of the Erzgebirge, the world's largest mountain mining region at the time. In this capacity, he was also responsible for the forests owned by his overlord. Born during the Thirty Years' War, von Carlowitz witnessed the destruction caused by the longest war fought in Europe up to that time, and experience that profoundly influenced his perception of the world.
In his post, the liberal-minded nobleman worked hard in furthering the prosperity of the court of Kursachsen and the state of Saxony by promoting the mining industry. This industry consumed however huge amounts of timber, firstly for the reinforcement of the mining shafts and tunnels and then for the smelting of the ores.
At the same time, the population in the area increased rapidly, and the ever expanding towns put huge pressure on the local forests. Over a few decades, local woods disappeared, and timber became a scarce commodity, putting the future of the mining business at risk. To secure the supply of timber to this vital industry in the region, Hans Carl von Carlowitz pleaded for a continuous, gradual and sustainable management of the depleted forests in Saxony, referring to the decades it takes to grow timber and the responsibility of one generation towards the next.
He proposed that in the future, only as much timber should be harvested as regrows over the same period of time. By adopting this approach, he wanted to secure the forests as a vital resource for future generations. Based on the knowledge and experience of previous forest managers as well as his own insights and thoughts, he wrote a 400-page treatise entitled "Sylvicultura Oeconomica" published in 1713 – now generally recognised as the year in which sustainability was "invented".

The principle of sustainability developed in Saxony inspires forestry management in Thuringia

It took only a few decades until the views of Hans Carl von Carlowitz were adopted by forest managers in Thuringia. Among his early followers was Heinrich Cotta who founded the first forestry college in German around 1795 in his native Zillbach/Meiningen. At a later stage, he set up the institution that is now known as the Department of Forest Sciences at the Technical University of Dresden. Von Carlowitz also inspired Gottlob König who established a forestry academy in Eisenach.
These two men went on to develop forestry as a scientific discipline based on the principle of sustainability. Saxony and Thuringia can thus rightly claim to be the cradle of sustainability as well as modern science of forestry. Today, German forestry practices and research are still highly regarded around the world.
However, Hans Carl von Carlowitz did not see the fruits of his labour. He died at the age of 68 in March 1714, just one year after the publication of his ground-breaking work "Sylvicultura Oeconomica". His thoughts and insights however shaped modern law, such as the State Forest Act of Thuringia and the German National Forest Act. In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development made sustainability the leading principle of global development. Over time, the term "sustainability" developed from a purely quantitative term to a qualitative notion.

Forestry science makes sustainability quantifiable

How is the principle of sustainability reflected in the actual management of the forests in Thuringia? Every ten years, the woods in Thuringia are surveyed as regards their area and stock of tree species, as well as the health and age of the stock. More detailed data is collected through random sampling (forest management planning and control). In the past, this information was compiled in stock and growth tables. Today, powerful computer programs calculate the reserve stock in the surveyed forests.
By comparing the latest figures with data from previous surveys, forestry experts are able to determine whether a forest has been overexploited or underexploited in the past, so that harvesting schemes can be put in place that do not deplete the stock but promote healthy forest development. The surveys are also helpful to determine where new forests should be planted, and where naturally developed young woods should be managed. In addition, the data reveals whether there are tree species that require special protection. On average, ThüringenForst harvests about 80 per cent of what could be cut with sustainable management. With this policy, the state agency makes an investment from which future generations will benefit. Apart from working with quantitative and economic sustainability parameters, ThüringenForst has long adopted a more holistic approach to the protection of resources: With its commitment to the concept of "Dauerwald", the agency promotes an understanding of sustainability as an important element of societal development.
When it comes to the sustainable management of its own forests, ThüringenForst is not only governed by state law, but also by the regulations of the PEFC forestry management certification system. In addition, the state agency is a signatory of the NAThüringen Sustainability Agreement, a fact that demonstrates once more its commitment to sustainable practices in its day-to-day operations for the benefit of the community it serves. (hs)

Photos: Daniela Tröger