Viktoria Hutter's enemy is four millimeters tall. It destroys the work of decades. Your enemy is the bark beetle. When it is hot and dry, the beetle feels comfortable in the forest. It multiplies by leaps and bounds. The past few years have offered him excellent conditions for this. Because the trees weakened by the drought produce less resin. The viscous sap is the tree's firewall. If it falls, the beetle has an easy time of it. He eats his way through the tree until he dies.
Infested trees must be removed from the forest quickly. Bare areas remain. The beetle devastates entire regions. 20.000 hectares, which corresponds to about half the area of Vienna, have fallen victim to the Waldviertel alone since 2017. Less forest means fewer trees and therefore less income for forest owners like Hutter. “The bark beetle hit us very hard,” she says. Hutter manages 45 hectares of forest.
She has had to cut 4000 cubic meters of damaged wood since 2017. One solid cubic meter corresponds to one cubic meter. Damaged wood loses its value massively. While Hutter can currently sell the solid cubic meter of round wood for 90 euros, she only gets around half for the wood infested by the beetle. Damaged wood only differs optically from healthy wood. However, it does not lose any of its stability.
In addition to the forest, Hutter has organic farming as a second mainstay. “My forest is too small to be able to make a living from it,” she says. For some forest managers, however, the forest generates the only income. The beetle destroys their livelihood. The damage caused by bark beetle infestation and the loss of wood prices in Austria is enormous. The Chamber of Agriculture puts it at 635 million euros for 2017 and 2020.
Damaged wood in abundance
The bark beetle has produced huge amounts of damaged wood in recent years. Storms and snow breaks also contributed. Damaged wood is flooding the market. That drove down the price. However, prices have skyrocketed for a few months. The demand for the raw material is increasing, especially on the part of the construction industry. Government funding programs during the pandemic acted as an additional boost. The order books in the wood industry are full. The sawmills rub their hands. The small foresters are less satisfied. The industry makes good profits with their wood, but too little of it reaches them, so the allegation. "We have not yet received the higher price of wood," says forester Hutter.
The spruce dominates Austria's forests. It is the "bread tree" of forestry. It is easy to cultivate. It grows straight and fast. It still takes decades before you can generate income. A spruce has to grow for 60 to 80 years. Only then does the trunk have the necessary diameter to be processed. The spruce trees in Viktoria Hutter's forest were planted by her grandparents and their ancestors. However, over the years the number of trees diminishes. You get sick. Storms let them buckle. The beetle eats them. Hutter is removing these trees to give healthy ones more room to grow. “Of the 2000 trees that are planted, around 300 trees remain,” she says.
Before selling, the tree is cut to three, four or five meters. The trunk is still round. One speaks of saw logs. The price for this has fallen in recent years. In the fourth quarter of 2020 it was around 65 euros per cubic meter of wood. The prices for round wood have risen. The sawmills currently pay the forest managers around 100 euros per cubic meter of log. Prices vary depending on the region, type and quality of the tree. Sawmills refine the logs from foresters to sawn timber and sell it on. For customers who buy sawn timber, however, prices have skyrocketed.
Franz Fischer, chairman of the Raabs forest community and the Lower Austrian Forest Association, is annoyed by the price discrepancy. “The price for sawn timber was already 2020 euros per cubic meter at the end of 250, and it is currently 500 euros per cubic meter,” says Fischer. He criticizes the wide range in between. “The sawmills make good profits at our expense,” he says. It is true that the price of round timber has also risen. But the level would have been reached ten years ago. “A price of 120 to 140 euros would be justified,” says Fischer. According to Martin Höbarth, Managing Director of the Austrian Forest Association, the log prices “are still behind the possibilities”. The increased wood price arrives at least with a delay in the forestry sector.
The sawmills make good profits at our expense
The association of the wood industry does not accept the criticism of the foresters. The price increases for wood are moderate compared to other building materials, says Herbert Jöbstl, chairman of the Association of the Wood Industry. The forest owners would also benefit from the increased demand for wood products.
Christoph Hierner hopes that the wood price will continue to be good. Because he lives from forestry alone. He manages 70 hectares of forest in the Scheibbs district. The region is mountainous, the bark beetle has a harder time here. “It's raining more here, it's not getting so hot. That mitigates the damage, ”says Hierner. But he still has to constantly check his forest for damage. The steep terrain makes the work difficult.
However, the higher price for logs is only helping him to a limited extent at the moment. “I currently have a high proportion of industrial wood,” says Hierner. Paper is made from this inferior wood. The market is saturated, the paper industry has full stocks. At the moment the price is 20 euros per cubic meter. In the best case scenario, the harvest costs Hierner 25 euros. “That means I have to earn more somewhere.” Because the price of wood has been low in recent years, Hierner was unable to invest large sums in his business. “In the case of small businesses, everything was wasted on preservation. Many have their backs against the wall, ”says the forester.
Hierner is happy that the round timber is now at a better price. But he demands that the small foresters are paid better. “The gap between purchase price and sales price is widening.” The profits of the timber industry would not benefit the foresters, says Hierner. "We have to strengthen the entire sector, otherwise the companies will be brought to the brink of existence," he is convinced.
Bernd Cresnar understands the displeasure of foresters. He owns a small forest himself and markets the wood of some of the larger family forests in Austria. But Cresnar also knows about the situation at the sawmills. “The sawmills have been busy with the oversupply of wood in the past few years. Accordingly, they were able to shop at low prices, ”he says. Large and medium-sized forest operations would be more likely than small ones. “You have to pay the fixed costs, even in times of bad wood prices.” Small forest owners also don't have to produce wood if the wood price is low, says Cresnar.
Viktoria Hutter has a different view of things. "If I look after the forest sustainably, I have to take out trees every year and regularly," says the forester. 300 cubic meters per year would be sustainable for her. In 2020 she had to sell 1000 cubic meters of damaged wood. “It's a challenge when the price for damaged wood is so low,” says Hutter.
Removing the infested trees is not enough. The forest needs to be reforested. Hutter plants young trees. She places several thousand pieces on one hectare. They need a lot of maintenance. Weather and game endanger growth. Hutter invests a lot of work, sweat and money. It takes ten years until a culture is secured, i.e. young trees are out of the coarsest. “It's our job to rebuild the forest and make it fit for the future for our grandchildren,” says Hutter.