On Christmas Day 1999 winter storm “Lothar” devastated large areas of forest in Southern Germany. Storm damage is part of natural forest dynamics. For the local economy, however, the damage caused by “Lothar” was an economic catastrophe, and most areas were cleared and reforested within months. The forested areas of the Black Forest are indeed an essential part of the local economic system and an important basis for landscape-oriented hiking tourism.
In parallel with this clearing-up process, a very unconventional idea materialized in the visitor center at Ruhestein. A 10-hectare site on top of the Northern Black Forest Mountain Range, belonging to the state of Baden-Württemberg, was left undisturbed as a monitoring area for natural forest dynamics (Figure 1). This concept followed the innovative idea in German national parks of leaving nature to itself and avoiding all human-induced changes. Originally the concept was conceived as a sort of outdoor laboratory to observe the process of natural reforestation. But due to growing interest on the part of the general public concerning the consequences of the winter storm, it was decided to open up the area to allow everyone a chance to gain personal insight.
The “Lothar” trail: a new didactic approach
Because a storm-devastated forest area can only be observed safely from a distance, an adventure trail had to be constructed to make the area accessible to the general public. This trail now provides thrilling insight in the form of a fixed rope route, leading over and under fallen trees. By contrast with the still very popular traditional panel trails that provide quite a lot of information in the form of long written texts, the didactic concept of the “Lothar” trail is quite extraordinary. Only a single panel positioned near the beginning of the trail contains information about the specific ecosystem of this mountain forest and the dynamics of natural reforestation. Further on, no other panels are found on the 800-m-long trail, which takes about half an hour to walk through. The didactic idea behind this new approach is to give visitors a personal experience and induce an awareness-raising process by insight rather than by pre-selected information. The concept is complemented by guided tours offered on a regular basis by the nearby visitor center, as well as a brochure giving additional information if desired. Also in contrast to the classical panel trails, the “Lothar” trail is multi-sensual, involving not only eyesight but hearing, smell, touch, and balance as well.
Experiencing forest dynamics as a new tourism highlight
Originally the intention of the “Lothar” trail concept was forest monitoring, and later on awareness-raising for the general public—but not to create a new hot spot of local tourism. Nevertheless the “Lothar” trail has emerged as a favorite tourism destination in the Northern Black Forest. In 2005 the total number of visitors was estimated at about 40,000 a year. This high frequency of visitation was mostly due to the fascination inspired by this small “wilderness area” and the possibility for self-experience, which is rarely available in a highly urbanized country like Germany. By contrast with traditional panel trails, which today are hardly frequented at all, especially by families with children, unusual trail concepts attract a high number of visitors.
Empirical research conducted by questioning and observing visitors on the trail yielded interesting results. The majority of visitors came from nearby districts and visited the “Lothar” trail on a day-trip with their families. Motivation for the visit was mostly attributed to personal experience (45%), because nearly every inhabitant of Baden-Württemberg above a certain minimum age had witnessed “Lothar” and was therefore interested in the consequences as well as the later development of the devastated areas. Children were the second motivation for a visit, because on the one hand parents wanted to show their children the outcome of the storm. On the other hand, the special concept of the trail, which provides an exhilarating climbing experience, closely matched the needs and wishes of children. It was therefore no great surprise that the number of regular visitors reached an astonishingly high point, with 21% coming for a second or third time and 9% coming even more often.
This was also due to the natural dynamics of the reforestation process. Whereas in the first years the area looked dead and uninviting, new trees later grew up between fallen dead trees (Figure 1). Regular visitors therefore had an opportunity to observe the yearly changes personally and to witness the exciting process of the emergence of a new forest.
Success of awareness-raising for natural forest dynamics
Visitors' assessments of the trail were very positive; 98% gave it the two top school marks. Most visitors were impressed by their walk through the storm area and had feelings of respect at the breathtaking and overwhelming sight of the power of nature. In general, seniors and people with little education regard the fallen tree trunks as depressing for the most part, and did not like the aesthetics of the area. There were even comments from this group about clearing up “this mess” and replanting an “orderly German forest.” The success of awareness-raising correlated closely with the form of communication. Participants on the guided tours showed considerable understanding of natural forest dynamics and were the best informed group about the forthcoming development of the area. But even people who chose the self-guiding trail gained significantly more insight than those who had never been on the trail. Due to explanations and the personal insight gained during the guided tour, 97% of the tour participants knew the area would be transformed into a forest in the coming years, which would be closer to the potentially natural forest in this area than the monoculture of spruce trees which had been planted before the storm.
Is the “Lothar” trail suited as a model for environmental education in forest areas?
In the above-mentioned context, some aspects of the “Lothar” trail seem worth transferring to other regions. This is especially true of the didactic concept chosen, which can be very well adapted to the needs and wishes of a leisure-time audience, consisting mostly of families with children. Due to the resulting high number of visitors, the awareness-raising process is more successful than an elaborate information trail, which reaches only a small number of participants. Also, the different levels of information available (self-guiding, guided tours, additional brochures and visitor center) address a wide range of interest groups.
The multi-sensual approach is highly recommendable, especially for children, as the most effective way of learning about and experiencing a forest ecosystem is not by reading or hearing information but by touching, smelling and personal experience. Putting children in contact with forests is particularly important, because the basis for awareness and understanding of nature is formed in the most impressive phases of early childhood. In a highly urbanized country like Germany, current research results show a declining rate of contact with nature, combined with a frightening indifference towards “real nature” and a lack of knowledge, especially among teenagers. The concept of the Lothar trail, with its high degree of regional reference, authenticity and potential as a tourist attraction, can serve as an example for other trails in forest areas. Therefore a successful sensitizing concept for natural forest dynamics, especially in mountain areas, has to take modern didactic approaches for a leisure-time audience into account, as well as the necessity of an individual concept tailored to special regional circumstances. Accordingly, copying the “Lothar” trail is not a realistic possibility, but the adoption of the leading principles is recommendable.