DIMB interview on the draft Federal Forest Act in Germany

30 November 2023

DIMB interview on the draft Federal Forest Act in Germany

“We fear numerous prohibition signs”

interview by Gregor Sinn, eMTB-news.de (orginal interview was published in German)

 

The current Federal Forest Act dates back to 1975 and is due to be revised. After all, it is not just the state of the forest and the environment that has changed – new user groups such as mountain bikers have also been added. However, a leaked draft of the new forest law a few weeks ago, which was not intended for the public, caused horror among outdoor sports enthusiasts. We asked the mountain bike interest group DIMB.

Leaked draft of the Federal Forest Act – what’s it all about?

The fact that the now rather outdated Federal Forest Act is to be revised is not a bad thing in itself. After all, the sport of mountain biking has established itself as a popular sport with 3.8 million active athletes and a full 12.2 million occasional riders (both according to the DIMB) and is constantly growing. A revision could therefore also be seen as an opportunity to change the often very restrictive legal situation, which drives many active riders into illegality, for the better. Unfortunately, a draft recently leaked on the forestry platform forstpraxis.de paints a very different picture of the situation – as we reported: New draft of the Federal Forest Act

The leaked draft is not met with enthusiasm by either the forestry lobby or mountain bikers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts. The responsible Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture recently clarified that the paper was not intended for the public and that the actual draft bill, expected at the beginning of 2024, could turn out differently. However, the fact that such a draft is being circulated at all seems more than questionable.

The rejection of forest owners is mainly due to stricter nature conservation requirements. But mountain bikers and even hikers have little to laugh about: In the draft, cycling is only permitted on “suitable paths”, which, according to DIMB expert Heiko Mittelstädt, opens the floodgates to bans on cycling. Further clarifications of possible bans are also intended to ensure even more arbitrary closures rather than more clarity. In general, the draft law would allow the federal states to impose restrictions on cyclists in future, who would then only be allowed to cycle on certain routes. Conditions like those in neighbouring Austria immediately spring to mind.

Section 33, which has already earned the name “Komoot paragraph”, could become critical not only for mountain bikers, but for all nature lovers. This prohibits the recording and sharing of new trails. Heiko Mittelstädt estimates that even sharing a photo including GPS metadata on social networks could constitute an offence. We spoke to the DIMB expert about the content of the leak and the current situation surrounding the new forest law. Here is the interview:

Interview with DIMB consultant Heiko Mittelstädt

MTB-News.de: One of the DIMB’s core demands is to regulate the current right of access clearly and simply. You explicitly refer to the wording “… permitted on roads and paths”. However, the draft now refers to “suitable paths”. Does this contradict your demand? What consequences do you fear?

Heiko Mittelstädt, DIMB technical advisor: The wording “suitability of paths” originally came from the Bavarian Nature Conservation Act. The background to the wording was that a cyclist has no right to demand that a path must be prepared for cycling by the forest owner. Cyclists must accept the path as they find it and decide for themselves whether they want to cycle on it or prefer to push their bikes.

Unfortunately, attempts are currently being made to use this formulation of the “suitability” of a path to justify bans on cycling, in which it is no longer the cyclist himself who decides whether to ride or push, but rather third parties such as authorities, nature conservation organisations or forest owners who make a blanket decision as to whether paths are suitable for cycling. We consider this interpretation of the law to be wrong because it allows arbitrarily defined criteria.

These would lead to a legal ban on cycling on these routes without the need for a closure. Even with knowledge of the numerous criteria listed, it is generally impossible for cyclists to make a correct assessment. The decision to impose a driving ban would be made retrospectively and this raises the highest constitutional concerns.

As long as a cyclist is using a path, we believe there is no reason to treat them differently to pedestrians, as the disruption caused by both user groups is comparable. Regulation should only take place where there are really comprehensible reasons in individual cases.

The list of paths that are apparently unsuitable is very critical. In principle, any forest road can be an access route to a forestry or hunting facility. Be it a high seat or a wood storage area at the edge of the path. And the ban on driving on fine development lines covers not only logging roads, but also wide, permanently created logging or machine paths that can be travelled on with heavy machinery.

The explanatory memorandum to the law also contains further criteria that can be applied to almost any route. This opens the floodgates to arbitrary road closures, and we fear that we will be confronted with numerous prohibition signs in the future.

We would therefore like to see the current wording retained: cycling is permitted on “roads and paths”. This already has a sufficient steering effect on pedestrians, who are allowed to go off the beaten track. The wording is short, easy to understand and has proved its worth over the years.

The so-called “Komoot paragraph” has caused a lot of discussion. This is apparently being demanded by the forestry lobby – what consequences does it have for forest users? Strava & Co. are an integral part of the MTB scene and make trail networks accessible worldwide. Would this be illegal in Germany?

In our opinion, the regulations are very strict here. This is because pedestrians are allowed to go off the beaten track. If the track is recorded and automatically displayed to a community as a suggested route, we believe that the prohibition has already been realised. The same applies if a geo-referenced photo is taken off the beaten track and shared on social media with the GPS metadata it contains. Section 33(4) therefore applies to all recreational users and even an incorrect default setting in the app can result in a breach of the law. This is a regulation that clearly goes too far.

How has communication with the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture been going so far – in what form are the demands of the DIMB and other stakeholders being heard?

We have been involved in the dialogue on the future of forests to date by submitting comments and participating in the conferences. We are expecting the official draft bill around the turn of the year and then the consultation process for the associations will begin, in which we will also be involved. There are currently also other conferences at which we meet representatives of the BMEL or other organisations involved. The Forest Act is of course an issue here and it is very important to stay in dialogue with the various stakeholders. We have published our work to date on our website: www.dimb.de

Are there any other points in the draft bill that you would like to comment on?

In addition to Section 29 (3) on the suitability of routes and the negative list of suitable routes formulated there, Section 29 (4) is very critical. It allows the federal states to restrict cycling to specially designated paths. The law no longer provides a necessary justification for such restrictions, meaning that restrictions can be imposed arbitrarily. This thwarts the standardisation of access rights, as was the original intention of the Forest, Sport, Recreation and Health Working Group (WaSEG) at the BMEL.

In addition, there are further paragraphs that regulate recreation or other uses of the forest. It is noticeable that recreational use, which was previously one of the three equally important forest functions alongside forestry and nature conservation, is now only listed under the heading of ecosystem services. In our opinion, this does not do justice to the valuable function of recreation.

We fear that the interests of those seeking recreation will be given less consideration than the other interests. Here we have a comparison with the Federal Nature Conservation Act, where making the great outdoors accessible for recreational use is indeed an objective of nature conservation. However, this objective is only one of many and regularly falls behind the aspects of nature conservation in the authorisation procedures.

The word trail also appears eight times in the draft bill. However, it is not at all clear what is meant by a trail. In MTB jargon, the term trail ranges from a natural path in the forest to an elaborately constructed route with artificial obstacles. If terms are used in different ways even in the MTB scene, this creates even more legal uncertainty in a law. As far as we can see now, the tightening of the law is not coming from the nature conservation organisations.

This is because they have published their own legislative proposal, which leaves the regulations on trespassing largely untouched: www.dnr.de

The restrictions are therefore not about nature conservation, but about owner interests. This is supported by the fact that the draft law was published prematurely on the Forest Practice page.