Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

European Experiments in Rewilding: Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

All images in this article © David T. Schwartz

By David T. Schwartz

The last official act of the East German government (DDR) before dissolving in 1990 was to enact the proposal of a renegade biologist-turned-bureaucrat named Michael Succow.  Knowing German reunification was imminent, Succow persuaded the outgoing politicians to adopt a sweeping proposal to set aside 7 percent of all land in the DDR for nature preserves and nature parks, a move that he knew would be binding on the government of a unified Germany.  Hence was born a vast network of national parks and reserves, including the Flusslandschaft Elbe Biosphere Reserve, the largest inland Biosphere Reserve in Germany.

Part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program, the Flusslandschaft Elbe Reserve covers 282.250 hectares of ecologically diverse habitat along the Elbe River in northern Germany. The Elbe-Brandenburg section of reserve, which I visited earlier this year, encompasses 53,000 hectares of sensitive flood plain along a section of the Elbe that once served as the border between East and West Germany. While many of Europe’s great rivers have been thoroughly tamed, the Elbe is one of Germany’s most ‘natural’ remaining rivers, sustaining great biodiversity and providing habitat for numerous threatened species. In addition to its natural value, Flusslandschaft Elbe is also incredibly rich in cultural significance. Its role in the Cold War is a mere blip when one considers that the region has supported human civilization since Neolithic times, or about 8000 years.

My tour of the reserve began on a brisk May morning in the company of Jan Schormann, Biosphere Deputy Director.  Our first stop was the largest and perhaps most successful restoration project in the reserve’s history, a massive dike relocation near the town of Lenzen.  While the old dike generally protected nearby towns from flooding, its close proximity to the river bank meant that only a small strip of land benefited from the rejuvenating cycles of natural flooding. Floodwaters could not reach most of the natural floodplain, making it impossible for the waters to nurture wetlands and rejuvenate depleted soil.  After much negotiation with skeptical local citizens, work began in 2002 on a new dike further inland.  After 10 years of work, a new dike was in place and large cuts made into the old dike so that floodwaters could pass through to the new barrier. The result has been not only a larger and healthier floodplain but also better flood protection.  Jan explained that a bad 2003 flood nearly breached the old dike, requiring the German military to haul in 2 million sandbags to prevent catastrophic flooding.  After the dike relocation, an even worse flood in 2013 needed no such intervention.  The local skeptics were won over.

Below are two pictures from the dike relocation project. In the first, Jan points to one of the cuts in the old dike, with the Elbe in the background.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

Below is another photo of the old dike, the path of which curves toward an odd-looking building in the background. A closer look at this odd building reveals it to be an abandoned East German watch tower, revealing that the old dike ran precisely along the old border between East and West Germany. Said another way, thirty years ago we would have been shot for just standing on this spot!

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
While the science and engineering aspects are formidable, Jan says the most challenging aspect of his work is often more personal — persuading local citizens to go along with the Reserve’s various projects and proposals.  For example, for several years Jan and his team have been hoping to restore a large natural moor in the area.  Critical to storing carbon and reducing greenhouse gases, 35 percent of moors, bogs, and other such wetlands worldwide have been lost to human development, according to a recent U.N. Climate Report.  The moor in Elbe has been damaged by humans draining off water so that the land can support grazing cattle.  The practice dates back centuries, but it was ramped up exponentially by the East German government in the 1980s to increase food production.  When water is extracted from a moor, the underlying peat breaks down (releasing its carbon into the atmosphere) and the land slowly sinks.  While restoration is technically possible, the Elbe Reserve has so far been unable to persuade local farmers to sell their land to the Reserve to begin the process. Interestingly, the resistance seems grounded more in cultural tradition (“we’ve done it this way for centuries”) than economics, as most of the cattle are being raised for a hobby, not a livelihood.

While the Reserve has political authority to seize the moor by eminent domain, Elbe officials refuse to use such heavy-handed tactics.  Not only do they view seizure as morally suspect, they also believe persuasion is the only real route to changing long-term environmental attitudes.  After 45 years of totalitarian control, the locals are in no mood for top-down, imposed solutions.   Some of this resistance goes back to how the Biosphere Reserve was created in the first place — imposed by an act of the East German government with no local input.  As local critics were fond of saying at the time, “We want jobs, not owls.” In a role that he describes as ‘rural diplomat,’ Jan hopes to show that they can have both.

Below are photos of the moor in question.  The first shows the moor’s current use as a grazing area for cattle.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Below, Jan explains various physical changes that occur as peat breaks down into common topsoil.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
This photo below shows a healthier section of the moor, covered with phragmites australus, a tall grass naturally adapted to grow in the moor environment. Restoration efforts would seek to emulate this model.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Traditional rewilding advocates may well ask “Why allow people to farm here at all? Why not take such sensitive land out of service and do a complete restoration?” While understandable, this reaction reveals a fundamental difference in philosophy between traditional rewilding and the UNESCO mandate. Whereas traditional restoration often aims to erase the human footprint entirely, the Man and the Biosphere Program views human culture as a legitimate element of a region’s landscape ecology.

An example of this philosophy can be seen in the Elbe Reserve with the annual migration of white storks.  Each spring a colony of white storks make the 7,000 mile journey from South Africa, arriving in March and residing here until their return trip south in August.  Rather than hiking through remote forest or wetlands to see such beautiful birds, I was able to observe them from the comfortable balcony of a restored warehouse in the small town of Rühstädt, which bills itself as the stork capital of Germany.  Jan described the storks as “culture followers,” a fascinating term for animals whose life is intimately tied to cultural landscapes. In fact, the storks’ entire migration pattern has been adapted over centuries to take advantage of human habitation. For the storks, living near humans means an abundance of freshly mowed hayfields, where worms and other foodstuffs are much easier to find than in wild landscapes or forests. It also means the safety and security of nesting and brooding high on the rooftops of barns, houses, and other human structures. This nesting behavior has developed over centuries, with storks often returning to the exact same nests each year. In fact, conflicts often break out if storks return to find an interloper on their ‘property.’

Like any other conservation organization, the Elbe Reserve works to ensure that the storks’ migration patterns continue into perpetuity. But unlike nature preservation efforts that seek to erase the human footprint, here the goal is actually to maintain the human footprint upon which the storks’ migration depends. For example, because these nests can weigh over a ton, they can damage or even collapse a roof or barn if not actively managed. The Biosphere Reserve supports the storks’ migration by providing technical and financial assistance to the local citizens so they can keep the nest sizes manageable and repair any structural damage. With this kind of support, the locals are more willing and able to allow the storks to live on their property while in Germany. The result is obviously good for the storks, and it also pays dividends to the local economy through eco-tourism. Thousands of tourists flock here each year to take in this amazing sight.

Below are pictures of the storks in and around Rühstädt. The first is a close-up photo of a breeding pair nesting comfortably on the roof of a barn. This peaceful scene was quickly interrupted by one of the conflicts I mentioned, as shown in the next photo. The female tries to guard the nest as the two males circle about and spar to be her mate.  Jan explained that a stork’s first priority is always maintaining control of the nest.  They will sometimes opt to change mates rather than lose a nest.  Because preserving property seems to come before all else, he thinks that at heart the storks may be capitalists!

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Below, a stork prowls for worms and grubs in a freshly mowed hayfield. The next four photos illustrate a few of the 33 active nests in Rühstädt, including one with a fledgling chick looking for a food delivery.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Below is a picture from inside the renovated warehouse devoted to stork watching. The two artworks were done by local schoolchildren to celebrate the storks’ recent arrival.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Nothing says rewilding more than wolf reintroduction, and the Elbe Biosphere Reserve has that, too. Yet unlike the wolves reintroduced by humans into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, these wolves are reintroducing themselves! Extirpated from much of Western Europe in the 20th century, wolves are slowly migrating back into Germany, France, and even the Netherlands from less populated countries such as Poland and Russia. There are two breeding wolf packs in the Elbe River Biosphere Reserve alone, and dozens more have been documented across the German state of Brandenburg (map).

While many Germans (mostly in large cities) are ecstatic about the return of the wolf, others (mostly in rural areas) see wolves as a menace to their livelihood and family.  From exaggerated stories about wolves killing livestock and even abducting children, critics argue that tolerating wild wolves is a step too far in environmental activism.  In fact, on the very day I arrived in the Elbe Reserve a bill was introduced in the German Bundestag to ease prohibitions on hunting and killing wolves.  Until now, official government policy toward wolves has essentially been one of toleration — farmers received compensation for lost livestock, but the wolves themselves could not be harmed.

While the tolerance policy has obvious advantages for the wolves and for rewilding efforts generally, it is expensive financially and politically.  Besides the public funds needed to compensate farmers for livestock losses, many farmers now feel compelled to buy canine protection for their animals.  Bred and trained in the Balkans specifically to guard livestock from wolves, these dogs are expensive to buy and to maintain, adding to the farmers’ economic woes.  While specialized wolf-fencing may seem like an obvious alternative, it is not a panacea. Besides being costly to build, wolf-fencing has environmental drawbacks. Because it requires installing electrified wires much closer to the ground than traditional cattle fencing, wolf-fencing unintentionally blocks the passage of numerous other species (mostly small mammals) integral to ecosystem health.  Thus, with no easy technical solution at hand and anxieties running high, ‘rural diplomacy’ may again be the best hope for encouraging local farmers to tolerate this ‘new’ wild neighbor.

Below are some wolf-related pictures.  The first shows a taxidermy wolf at the visitor center of Harz National Park, followed by a photo of Jan explaining how traditional cattle fencing would need to be supplemented with lower wiring to deter wolves.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Next is a sign in the Elbe River Biosphere Reserve regarding the use of livestock protection dogs. It warns people not to engage with the dogs and to secure any pets on a leash.  Next is a photo of three protection dogs in action guarding their flock.  While they look like cuties from afar, the next photo shows how fiercely they reacted when Jan and I drove by.

Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve
Elbe River Biosphere Reserve

Reflections

While Flusslandschaft Elbe Biosphere Reserve is an experiment in rewilding, it is experimental in a different sense than projects such as Oostvaardersplassen. Here there is no speculative hypothesis about European ecology being tested, nor anything as technologically aggressive as back-breeding proxies for extinct herbivores. In fact, the Elbe Reserve isn’t even a nature reserve in the traditional sense, as only a small percentage of the total land area (the 3-5% inner core zone) is absolutely protected from human development.

The Elbe Reserve is experimental not in its science but in its philosophy. Choosing not the wilderness paradigm that protects nature by sequestering it from human influence, the Elbe Reserve stresses the fundamental inter-connectedness of nature and culture. It takes seriously the insight that nature is something humans live within, not something we manage from afar as if a garden or zoo. This is one reason so many of its projects concern the various ways humans have historically interacted with the land – especially agriculture. From working with local farmers to improve feeding practices to awarding prizes for the preservation of historical farm structures and their related crafts, Elbe is slowly mapping what it might look like for humans to live beyond the traditional nature/culture dichotomy. They are experimenting with new ideas and approaches whereby wildness might thrive not only in wilderness but also in the midst of human culture.

Elbe is also something of a political experiment. By rejecting practices such as eminent domain in favor of ‘rural diplomacy,’ the Reserve seeks to harness the power of democratic deliberation to help identify a sustainable environmental future. In this way, it reminds me of efforts such as the Valle de Oro Wildlife Refuge near Albuquerque, NM, which has worked closely with local citizens to envision how environmental restoration can also serve the interests of local citizens, including the traditionally underserved.

While promoting democratic participation is good in itself, there may also be a distinctly environmental benefit of this approach. In his work on the ethics of restoration, philosopher Andrew Light argues convincingly that technical restoration alone will not address our environmental challenges. Restoration must also focus on revitalizing “the human culture of nature.” Rather than thinking of nature as something we use up and then try to repair, long-term restoration requires learning to live less destructively in the first place. By engaging local citizens in the quest for solutions rather than imposing solutions from on high, the work at Elbe Reserve seems committed to the kind of cultural shift Light has in mind.

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