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West Germans discover their forests are dying

''I thought (all the talk about dying forests) was just hysteria and the Greens,'' remarked an avid hiker and conservative. Then she went walking this year in a favorite woods in Hessen. ''Every beech tree was - well, not dead, but dying.''

She - along with her fellow conservatives who rule West Germany - was shocked into thinking that something had to be done. And her reaction helps explain the textbook political co-optation of the ecology issue now being practiced by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservatives.

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In the latest manifestation of this, Research Minister Heinz Riesenhuber in mid-August put new urgency into West Germany's 56 million mark ($22 million) efforts to discover why trees are dying. The Research Ministry will increase its funding in this area from the 9 million marks ($3.6 million) spent so far this year and will aim for stricter emission laws. A research council of 14 professors was formed this summer and will coordinate the 314 federal, state, and private research projects in dying forests.

This sudden attention is a reversal of a decade of conservative (and Social Democratic) scorn for the alarms of grass-roots environmental organizations. Despite some lip service to ecological concerns, both major parties have given top priority to economic growth, especially in the hard years after the 1973 oil crisis. By and large they have viewed the additional costs of an environmental cleanup as unaffordable by industries struggling to survive.

In this period, protective measures were taken, but many of them turned out to be no more than palliative. In an infamous example, Ruhr smokestacks were required to be built higher to prevent concentration of pollutants in the Ruhr air. The result was that the smoke was carried over a far wider area and accelerated the dying of trees well outside the Ruhr.

Under these circumstances, the frustrations of the various ecological ''citizens' '' initiatives mounted - and helped propel the new countercultural Green Party into the Bundestag this year for the first time.

The ecology-minded Green Party started out a few years ago as a mixture of both right and left, but the right was quickly outnumbered and departed. That left the Greens with a clear leftist tilt, combining environmental causes with a deep mistrust of established authority, an enthusiasm for house squatting and other protest movements, nuclear pacifism, and a distaste for NATO and often for the United States.

West Germany's ruling conservatives are now trying to alter the political balance on ecological matters. Shortly after the center-right government took over last October, the Bundestag passed legislation (that had been worked out largely by the previous center-left government) putting tighter restrictions on industrial sulfur dioxide emissions. Then the conservatives in Bonn did an about-face, deciding to make unleaded gas compulsory for automobiles by 1986. Now comes the new campaign against dying forests.

In a way it is surprising that the conservatives have waited so long to take up the environmental banner. There is a strong conservative tradition of exalting nature in Germany. West Germany's most conservative state, Bavaria, draws much of its tourist income from its Alp and Uplands forests. Bavaria was the first state to establish an environment ministry of its own, and the Bavarian capital of Munich was a leader this year in a pilot project requiring that new official cars operate on unleaded gas.

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The traditional German conservative concern for nature and the political prodding of the Greens are now being joined by another powerful ecological incentive: the visible dying out of various forests in Central Europe (as in Scandinavia and North America). And one soil scientist, Gottingen's Prof. Bernhard Ulrich, doesn't expect the German woods to live longer than 20 more years.

The first federal study last year showed a sobering 7.7 percent of West German woods were dying out. This year's data, which have been compiled but not yet evaluated, will show a ''significantly higher'' percentage, Dr. Riesenhuber says. Entire stands of trees are threatened in some parts of Baden-Wurttemberg.

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