Philipp zu Guttenberg

The lord of the woods

Philipp zu Guttenberg
Rooting for timber producers. Source: AGDW

It’s not always easy to make a name for yourself when you’re the younger brother of a dashing, charismatic former politician who was once dubbed the German Kennedy and touted a potential heir to Angela Merkel as chancellor. But the kinship provides ample opportunity for good punchlines.

“It’s not about me tonight – I’m just plagiarizing here,” Philipp zu Guttenberg quipped in his speech at a 2011 gala in Aachen. The baron was standing in as guest of honor for his older sibling, the then-defense minister in Ms. Merkel’s cabinet, who had excused himself on short notice. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had been battling the fallout of a plagiarism scandal that had grabbed headlines for weeks and was about to engulf his career, so understandably he had little time to spare for a carnival banquet on the Rhine. The younger brother’s not-so-subtle hint at the whole sorry affair was met with thundering applause that night.

But despite the striking family resemblance, the younger Guttenberg’s job does not usually involve filling in for his brother or cracking jokes on the backs of disgraced politicians. The second son of conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg manages the family estate. That’s a full-time job. The Guttenbergs’ various properties scattered across southern Germany and Austria encompass the medieval castle of the House of Guttenberg in northern Bavaria, along with more than 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of forest, as is fairly typical of the German nobility. With an estimated fortune of over €400 million, the family features in business magazine Bilanz’s top 500 list of Germany’s wealthiest.

A total of 130,000 forestry businesses directly or indirectly employ 1.2 million people and made €180 billion ($209 billion) in revenue last year.

With such abundant forest ownership, Mr. zu Guttenberg also chairs the Association of German Forest Owners, or AGDW in German, a lobby with eleven employees that upholds the interests of Germany’s forestry sector, where a total of 130,000 businesses directly or indirectly employ 1.2 million people and made €180 billion ($209 billion) in revenue last year. And whether in Berlin or in Brussels, defending the industry is by no means an easy task, made more complicated still by the Germans’ deeply rooted love for the forests.

Never mind that the country’s woodlands are actually expanding. Over the past 15 years, while 57 million cubic meters of wood are harvested in Germany every year, the country’s supply of wood has grown by 6.6 percent, according to a report by Germany’s agriculture ministry. But in a nation whose psyche is shaped by the romantic works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, nature enjoys a near-mythical status. The Germans yearn for sylvan glades, a place of mindfulness, where one can forgive the sorrows of the world. Many of Mr. zu Guttenberg’s fellow countrymen view the 90 billion trees in the country’s forests as sacred entities rather than commodities.

The hundreds of thousands of forest owners across the country beg to differ. “Our colleague really doesn’t have an easy job,” one high-ranking lobbyist said. “It’s hard to explain to the public that it’s actually necessary to manage forests and that soundly harnessing timber resources does not harm the environment but actually protects it,” the Berlin-based lobbyist added. “It’s extremely difficult to get this message across, and many people just refuse to understand that for ideological reasons.”

CDU-Parteitag – Merkel Guttenberg
The other Guttenberg. Source: Picture Alliance

Mr. zu Guttenberg precisely says persuading a misguided audience is his “central task.” Or, as the AGDW statutes put it, the lobby aims to “preserve the inviolability of forest ownership, the freedom of its management and the right to self-government.” To do so, the Bavarian baron regularly commutes between Brussels and Berlin, where he lives with his wife, a Scottish aristocrat, and their three children. In the unofficial capital of the European Union, Mr. zu Guttenberg is vice chairman of the European Forest Owners Association, a lobby known under its French acronym, CEPF. There, the 44-year-old oversees seven fields, including agriculture, environment, climate and energy, all of which deal with forest-related topics.

The lobbyist’s arguments why his industry is actually beneficial the environment are well-known. According to him, harvesting timber is beneficial to woodlands, since it allows young trees to grow more easily. Furthermore, Germany’s forested areas have been growing every year since 2002 – a fact that many environmental activists conveniently ignore, the lobbyist adds. And finally, the demand for timber in Germany is significantly higher than the supply. As a result, the market has to be supplied by imported wood, and including tropical timber, which urgently needs protection too. “All it always falls on deaf ears,” Mr. zu Guttenberg laments in his Bavarian-accented German.

03 Forestry Businesses in Germany-01

On closer scrutiny, though, it does seem the aristocrat’s critics have been paying attention. Two years ago, the NABU nature conservation group awarded him the “Dinosaur of the year,” a mock prize the organization gives annually to public figures with an environmental stance it considers outdated. Other laureates include the CEOs of Exxon Mobil and utility company RWE, along with conservative economist Hans-Werner Sinn.

And so back in 2015, the government-endorsed conservationists said the lobbyist had earned the dubious distinction because he just won’t let woodlands grow naturally. “Philipp zu Guttenberg advocates and disseminates an anachronistic view of the forests, which is limited solely to the economic usability of timber resources,” the German environmentalist group said. “Mr. zu Guttenberg still has not accepted that by 2020, five percent of Germany’s forests will be off-limits for the forestry industry,” NABU chairman Olaf Tschimpke said, pointing out that this goal, adopted by Ms. Merkel’s center-right government back in 2007, affects almost exclusively forests that are in public ownership, not privately-owned woodlands. The lobbyist shrugs off the accusation with an aristocratic chuckle.

One thing forest owners find even less funny than dubious awards is bureaucratic interference. For instance, authorities prescribe which trees are allowed to grow in the German woodlands and which trees aren’t. The latter include, much to the baron’s chagrin, the North American Douglas fir, a highly productive, fast-growing conifer that is particularly resistant to pests, but is suspected of displacing tree species native to Europe. Mr. zu Guttenberg excoriates what he considers needless meddling in processes that work perfectly well, adding: “They don’t care that local tree species in German forests will suffer due to global warming, and that in turn will have a negative impact on our carbon footprint and on the timber output.”

Since it’s nearly impossible to win over critics with purely rational arguments, Mr. zu Guttenberg sometimes strikes an emotional note. “Landowners love their forests. Many families have owned their woodlands for generations. And they’ve always taken good care of their property, environmentally speaking.”

Peter Brors is Handelsblatt’s deputy editor in chief, based in Düsseldorf. Jean-Michel Hauteville adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. To reach the author:

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