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Fall of Berlin Wall Shakes City's Trees

With partition gone, foliage is imperiled by traffic, dogs, construction. Project tries to reverse damage.

July 02, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Freedom and capitalism may be bettering the lives of many people since the hated Berlin Wall was torn down a decade ago, but it's murder on the trees.

With so much of this reunified German capital undergoing reconstruction, the water table has suffered drastic fluctuations, drowning the roots of many of the oldest oaks and beeches in the beloved Tiergarten park in the heart of the city.

Exhaust from the ever-thickening traffic is poisoning the greenery along the city's stately tree-lined thoroughfares--including the famed arbors of Unter den Linden--and errant parking has destroyed the protective bark on many of the 500,000 ornamental street trees.

Even the city's 120,000 dog owners are in on the assault on green space: They have taken to walking their hounds in patches of forest newly liberated by the fall of the Wall, letting them use the tree trunks as toilets.

"Neglect is the best situation for trees because they have their own ecosystems and are better off without any interference," says Hartmut Kenneweg, a professor of horticulture at Berlin Technical University and head of the capital's Society for the Protection of German Forests. "The Wall was usually a positive influence on old trees because it kept cars and people and dogs away from them."

Many of Berlin's oldest trees were trapped in the no-man's land between the concentric fences of the notorious Cold War edifice, which served to protect them from the ravages of man and beast. Now, however, much of the land that hosts these noble survivors is on the auction block or endangered by the building boom and mounting traffic.

That is why Kenneweg and other environmentalists throughout Germany have launched a test project to document the damage and try to reverse the deterioration of the trees.

With a $25,000 donation from the German Foundation for the Environment and the furniture industry, last month the Beloved Old Trees Committee began intervention measures to shield three 200-year-old beeches in the Schlesischer Busch park from the harmful post-Cold War elements.

The small park, in which dozens of old trees managed to survive World War II bombardment and years of postwar scavenging for firewood, was sealed off by the Berlin Wall for 28 years.

The three beeches targeted for the first restoration effort are getting regular infusions of air and nutrients into the soil feeding their roots to counter an excess of water and acids that have already killed some branches, says committee founder and forester Hans-Joachim Froehlich.

"We are hoping to show with the Schlesischer Busch project that something can be done to save the trees," Froehlich says of the measures, which are more of a test than a proven treatment.

If the intervention proves effective in halting the deterioration of the old trees, the committee hopes to apply the technique to other endangered trees of aesthetic importance in Berlin, says Kenneweg, the horticulture professor.

At a cost of about $2,780 per tree, the modest funds provided for the project will be quickly exhausted. But landscape architect Achim Fauter, who is overseeing the Schlesischer Busch rescue effort, argues that the measures would be cheap at twice the price.

Berlin's trees are its oxygen supply as well as the best source of moisture and shade to keep the city comfortable in summer, says Fauter, who calculates it would cost municipal authorities $780 million a year to replace the positive climatic effects of the trees that are the lungs of this metropolis.

"But people don't often put any value on something they don't pay for," Fauter says with a grimace for fellow Berliners less inclined to be tree-huggers. "As long as the air we breathe is free, people are unlikely to stop and think about how air quality can be influenced by how they park their cars or walk their dogs."

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