SCHIERKE, Germany — Several retirees, a few millennials, a local couple and a technology specialist who saved overtime hours to take a day off from work gathered around a pile of birch twigs sprouting leaves on one end and a tangle of fine roots at the other.
One by one, they grabbed a bundle of the seedlings and picked their way through snow-clad fallen branches, searching for holes that had been dug into the black earth on the edge of the Harz National Park in the heart of Germany.
“You want to cover them well, and don’t leave any air pockets beneath the roots,” cautioned Olaf Eggert, the ranger responsible for this stretch of woods, as he held a seedling aloft, his forefingers scissored about halfway up the stem to demonstrate how deep in the earth the young trees must be buried to ensure their survival until spring.
More than 444,000 acres of forest in Germany are distressed or have died in recent years, according to government data. Across the country, Germans are worried about the survival of their forests, a natural treasure that is considered part of their identity and a source of their wealth.
So people are heading into the woods to do what they can do to help save them.
Rangers in the Harz National Park said they had repeatedly sought volunteers to help plant new trees since the park was established in 1990. But this year they barely needed to advertise.
“We have a lot of inquiries from people who have a need to do something to help the forest,” said Mr. Eggert, the ranger.
Jörg Berthold, one of the volunteers, moved farther up the hill from the dozen others taking part in the day’s reforestation effort. “In times like this, you have to help it out,” said Mr. Berthold, who said he had responded to an ad posted on the national park’s website for help rejuvenating the forest. “It’s become the big popular public sport around here — planting trees.”
In the last weeks of the autumn planting season, school classes, employees from a nearby Volkswagen plant and members of sports clubs showed up, at times outnumbering the number of seedlings available.
A woman who gave her name only as Jezz, an entrepreneur from the nearby town of Wernigerode, said she was helping the local woods instead of traveling around the world this year. “We are planting trees instead of flying on planes,” she said.
In the 1980s, fears that German forests were dying from acid rain — when the word “Waldsterben,” or “forest death,” was coined — led to widespread protests and galvanized the popularity of the nascent Greens party. Although laws to curb toxic emissions eventually led to a decrease in pollutants and a revival of the woods, that period left its mark on the trees that survived.
More recently, rising temperatures caused by climate change are threatening German forests. Severe drought in 2018 followed by another exceptionally dry summer this year left trees across Germany vulnerable to bark beetles that lay their eggs just beneath the bark, which has killed trees and left large swaths of normally lush, green hillsides a sickly brown.
Adding to the stress is a lack of diversity in the species of trees in German forests, where primeval woods were cleared hundreds of years ago and replaced with faster-growing pines that have proved less resilient to rising temperatures. Some forest rangers are trying to change that by allowing previously cultivated woodlands to return to their natural state.
“Most German forests are under extreme conditions and therefore likely experience stress,” said Allan Buras, who monitors forest health as a member of the Bavarian Climate Research Network. “This is also what we are seeing on the ground. We are finding increased mortality rates among the trees. It is pretty alarming.”
The woods hold a special place in the German psyche and national identity, reaching back to the Germanic tribes who worshiped the basswoods and oaks covering the central European lands they ruled. The German Romantics of the 19th century revived the image of the forest as mythical place, one that could pose a danger as in “Little Red Riding Hood” or offer protection as in “Snow White.”
Later, industrialization and the need for timber led Germans to view their forests as a source of wealth that could be managed and harvested on a mass scale. In response, conservationism was born, with the introduction of reforestation efforts and the imposition of harsh prison sentences and even the death penalty for anyone caught setting forest fires.
Germans are credited with starting the tradition of Christmas trees in the 16th century, and to this day many cities select the finest firs from local parks and forests to cut down and decorate for the holiday.
But in Wernigerode this year, residents rallied around a 49-foot-tall fir tree that had been slated to be felled for this year’s Christmas market in the medieval town center. They argued that it made no sense to sacrifice a healthy tree for the holidays, and the city authorities instead found a smaller tree to use.
Rangers estimate that 80,000 tree shoots have been placed in the ground around Schierke this year. Deeper into the park, nature is being left to repair itself after centuries in which Germans cultivated and harvested forests for timber.
The decision to entrust nature to heal itself has resulted in large swaths of bare, lifeless tree trunks in areas once thick with lush, deep green pines. This has pitted preservationists against foresters who worry that failing to clear the dead trees will cause insect infestations to spread more rapidly.
At the same time, scientists are working to figure out which tree varieties will be more resistant to the rising temperatures that have stressed even native beeches. German foresters believe that their country could play a key role in determining how to transform woodlands to withstand climate change.
Reforestation efforts are among the initiatives in a nearly $889 million package approved by the German government this year to help save the forests. Lobbying groups say the investment is desperately needed, and private foresters agree.
Cornelius Meyer-Stork is among the many private foresters who own nearly half of all woodland in Germany. He welcomed the government’s support, pointing out that farmers in the European Union receive about $288 in subsidies for every 2.5 acres they work and are eligible for more if they meet certain requirements. By contrast, he said, “we foresters receive nothing.”
In previous years, he opened his forest to allow people to cut down young pines as Christmas trees if they were crowding others. He also groomed the paths to set up basic infrastructure and earn certification for his land as a sustainable forest for rest and relaxation.
But after bark beetles ravaged a hillside once covered with pines, Mr. Meyer-Stork was forced to raze the land and sell the damaged wood to make paper or particle board for half of the usual price. Now, a picnic table he built in a shady grove stands amid a tangle of stumps and branches.
“It used to be surrounded by tall pines,” he said. “Now I guess I’ll have to move it.”