When US President Donald Trump recently mentioned Austria and its forests in relation to the Californian wildfires, we in the Austrian government paid attention. There have been both serious and humorous conversations on social media about the “exploding trees” he mentioned, as well as the fact that he claimed we live within “forest cities” which never catch fire.
As Austrians, fortunately blessed with a healthy sense of humour, we normally take such clichés about our country in our stride. More often than not, people imagine us as living inside the set of The Sound of Music. However, the gravity of current events make Trump’s words much more worrying — after all, right at this moment, thousands of people are fighting horrendous wildfires in life-or-death situations.
In reality, Austria is a country situated in the heart of Europe, where people do not live in the forest, but rather with the forest and in a close, sustainable relationship with the natural environment. Trees cover almost half of our nation’s territory. The sustainable management and protection of our forests makes us world-famous among experts. People love travelling to Austria, but not only for its slopes or for visiting the birthplace of Mozart. We are proud that people visit Austria because we offer our guests intact natural landscapes, forests, hiking trails and fields.
To clarify: No, we don't have any exploding trees in Austria! Even though Austria is densely populated, we have found a way to give our trees the space they need as well as a sustainable future while still making use of what they produce. And yes, when President Trump mentions that our forests have been "tidied up", he is right. In order to create a beautiful, safe and biodiverse environment, you have to look after it. All kinds of pests, especially bark beetles, have the capacity to destroy the hard work of generations of foresters and forest farmers while at the same time increasing the risk of wildfires massively.
If we do not take care of our habitat, there are dangerous consequences: preserving our environment serves as a safety net against avalanches and landslides, and provides a basis for fresh air and drinking water, as well as our economic future. It is not just the responsibility of forest farmers and our many nature-lovers to look after our forests — responsible conservation is part of our collective consciousness and our Austrian identity.
This does not make us “forest people”, but shows how important understanding our environment and our natural resources is. Taking climate change seriously and mitigating its effects is a huge part of this. Austria has preserved a deep awareness of our surroundings throughout the years, an awareness which — unfortunately — other countries seem to have lost.
You will find no “forest cities” in Austria. You will find habitats closely intertwined with forests. Vienna, our capital, is surrounded by a green belt and draws a large proportion of its drinking water from the mountains and forests just an hour away.
Yes, Austria is a forest country; yes Austrians know, love and appreciate their forests. After all, around 300,000 people in Austria make their living directly or indirectly from forestry.
Many people may find Donald Trump's statements about Austria’s forests amusing. For us, it also serves as an opportunity to highlight the beauty of our forests and our country as a whole — while clarifying the truth behind the controversial words. Austria holds all those currently suffering the terrible consequences of climate change in their thoughts and we sincerely hope that the wildfires on the west coast of the US can be brought under control as soon as possible. In our country, we love our forests and the variety of functions and life they offer our guests and us. I sincerely invite all of you to see for yourselves.
Elisabeth Köstinger is the Austrian Federal Minister of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism