Thirsting, ill and ablaze, Germany's forests in critical state, minister says

BERLIN, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Forest fires, drought and insect infestations have left Germany's forests in a critical state, agriculture minister Julia Kloeckner said after forest owners demanded 2.3 billion euros in emergency aid to tackle the crisis.

Kloeckner was speaking on Thursday after talks to lay the ground for next month's "forest summit" at which foresters and the government will develop plans for responding to what has come to be termed the "forest die-off".

"Anybody touring Germany's forests at the moment is seeing something dramatic," she said after meeting forestry associations. "We've lost over 100,000 hectares," she said, adding that an area equivalent to 3,300 soccer fields had been lost to forest fires.

There is deep unease at the condition of trees in Germany, a country that prides itself on its environmental awareness and where centuries of romantic literature and legends of woodland clashes between ancient tribes and Roman legions have given rise to a veritable cult of the forest.

Last year's exceptionally hot and dry summer weakened millions of trees, undermining their defences against the bark-beetle, which often prove fatal to trees that have stood for centuries. This summer has been even hotter.

Soldiers have been deployed to speed the process of felling trees that have fallen prey to infestations so that their wood can still be sold, although the resulting glut has seen wood prices plummet, adding to economic strains in the sector.

Environmental lobby group BUND also called for a focus on replanting forests that had become monocultures as a result of past reforestation plans that had focused on planting only fast-growing trees.

"After reforesting dead woodlands the real priority is restructuring forests, moving away from unnatural coniferous forests to climate-stabilising leafy forests," the organisation's head said.

Huge fires in the Brazilian rainforest together with recent studies showing that reforestation can play a crucial role in absorbing climate-changing carbon released by human activities have led to an increased focus on the plight of woodlands across the world. (Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Rene Wagner; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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