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EXPLAINED: How Austria banned everyone from the forest for 123 years

For more than a century, Austrian forests were private spaces and entry was forbidden for the general public. Here’s why and how Austria banned everyone from the forest.

Smoke - or is it fog? - in the Austrian forest. Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz on Unsplash
Why was the public banned from entering Austrian forests for over 100 years? Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz on Unsplash

For anyone that lives in Austria, a public ban on entry to an Austrian forest seems unimaginable.

In 1852 though, that is exactly what happened with the introduction of the Reich Forest Act. 

But why was the Act enforced in the first place? And how did the Austrian public finally regain the right to enter the forest?

Here’s what you need to know.

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What was the Reich Forest Act?

The Reich Forest Act came into effect throughout the entire Austrian Empire on December 3rd 1852 and the law included a general ban on entering forests.

The reason for the Act was to protect forests from further damage after years of timber production and livestock grazing. The risk of flooding and avalanches were also heightened as a result of poor conditions in forests.

The main aims of the Act were to safeguard forests against clearing, ensure reforestation after harvesting, protection of forest stands (communities of trees), and special management on steep slopes, unstable ground and along riverbeds.

Not surprisingly, the strict rules worked and is part of the reason why Austria’s vast network of forests are so well maintained today.

But it meant forests became private spaces for 123 years – effectively banning the public from vast swaths of land across Austria.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What is Austria’s ‘tick vaccine’ and should you take it?

What happened in 1975?

In the decades after the Second World War, public interest in accessing forests started to grow, followed by political debate on the topic.

Then, on July 3rd 1975, the issue of opening up Austrian forests to the general public was discussed by the government during a National Council session. The result would be the Forest Act 1975.

Part of the argument – led by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) – for ending the ban on entering forests was that Austria was a tourist country, and foreigners particularly liked to visit the Alpine Republic for its landscape.

It was also argued that only a small percentage of the Austrian population owned land and property, and so it was unfair to deny entry to forests on the basis of ownership.

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But forest owners and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) expressed concerns about changing the law, most notably regarding the liability of owners for maintenance and a responsibility for the health and safety of visitors.

As a compromise, the Forest Act was expanded to include the General Civil Code. 

This regulated responsibility for the condition of a forest path and paved the way for owners to receive subsidies for forest fire insurance. Forest visitors were also deemed liable for their own safety. 

Despite initial hesitations by forest owners and the ÖVP, the extra clauses managed to sooth the opposition and eventually the Forest Act was unanimously approved in the National Council. 

In a transcript of the National Council session, Oskar Weihs (SPÖ), the then Acting Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, said: “According to the new forest law, no one can be forbidden to enter and remain in the forest.”

Once again, Austrian forests were open to the public for recreation.

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What are the rules for entering a forest in Austria today?

Around 48 percent of Austria’s territory is covered by forests and in theory anyone can enter a forest at any time. There are a few rules though.

According to the Forest Act 1975, authorities can impose a ban on access to certain areas. For example, if trees are being cleared or maintenance work is taking place that could be a danger to people.

Access to reforestation areas can also be restricted until trees have reached 3 metres in height.

Plus, camping, biking (including mountain biking) and driving vehicles along forest paths is not allowed unless the owner has granted permission.

Additionally, the law states that information boards have to be put up in public areas in accordance with the Forest Marking Ordinance (Forstliche Kennzeichnungsverordnung) to inform visitors about any closures or rules.

Useful link

More information about the rules for entering an Austrian forest can be found at the Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism.

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Wild weather in Austria: How to protect yourself during summer storms

With violent storms becoming increasingly common in Austria, here’s how to protect yourself (and your home) this summer.

Wild weather in Austria: How to protect yourself during summer storms

Storms are a regular occurrence in Austria during the summer months, but the strength and frequency seems to be increasing.

Overnight on Tuesday, June 28th, both the Pöllinger and the Treffner rivers in Carinthia burst their banks causing widespread flooding, mudslides and damage across the region.

Reports on Wednesday morning said the villages of Treffen am Ossiacher See and Arriach (Villach-Land district) were still metres under water and several people had been rescued from the deluge.

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Austria

According to ORF, emergency services were still struggling to reach some areas and there were unconfirmed reports of missing people.

A Tweet from Unwetter-Freaks said: “Bad pictures from #Arriach in #Kärnten , which was hit by several storm cells last night. According to ORF, the place is currently cut off from the outside world and cannot be reached by the emergency services.”

Earlier this week, rural areas in Upper Austria were also hit by storms (overnight, June 27th) bringing torrential rain and hail the size of golf balls, which caused extensive damage to crops and grassland in the key agricultural state.

READ ALSO: 23 essential articles to help you navigate life in Austria

The Klaus reservoir had to be drained of 200 cubic metres of water to avoid flooding and trees were brought down across the province by wind gusts – some up to 91 km/h.

The Kronen Zeitung reports the storm caused damage to around 16,000 hectares of agriculture land, with insurers estimating the cost to be up to €6.5 million.

One Tweet showed the size of the hail on Monday night and read: “In the night we had ‘light’ hail.”

Storms then hit the region again on Tuesday night leading to a lightning strike on a hay barn in the Mühlviertel and the flooding of an underground car park in Linz.

With the summer season far from over and the possibility of more wild weather in the coming months, here’s how to stay safe during storms in Austria.

FOR MEMBERS: When and where to avoid driving in Austria this summer

Check the weather report

It might sound obvious, but checking the weather forecast should be at the top of the list of summer storm preparations.

Unlike in the past, weather reports are now typically reliable, and apps like Bergfex and Accuweather are well-known for providing detailed forecasts and weather warnings.

However, long-range forecasts can change quickly, so if you’re planning a camping or hiking trip, be sure to check the weather between 24 and 48 hours before to avoid being caught out.

Additionally, the Österreichischen Unwetterzentrale (Austrian Severe Weather Centre) has regular updates about storms and weather forecasts for Austria and users can sign up for email and SMS notifications.

Stay indoors

According to the organisation, Die Helfer Wiens (The Helpers of Vienna) one of the biggest risks during a storm is being hit by a fallen tree or flying debris.

For this reason, they advise people (and pets) to stay indoors during a storm and close all windows and doors. 

If staying in a tent or campervan, it’s also a good idea to seek shelter in a building (if possible) until the storm has passed.

However, if you are outside during lightning, the Austrian Red Cross says the best approach is to crouch down into a ball to reduce the amount of contact you have with the floor.

READ MORE: How to keep your apartment cool in Austria this summer amid rising energy prices

Stay away from the cellar

Cellars and underground car parks can quickly become flooded during heavy rain – as seen in recent storms in Upper Austria and Carinthia, and last year during violent storms across Austria.

Flash flooding can happen quickly (the clue is in the name), so stay away from cellars and underground spaces during a storm and call the emergency services if you suspect a flood in your home.

Remove plants and furniture from balconies

Having plants and flowers on a balcony is a lovely way to brighten up an outside space, but they risk being damaged during a storm.

To safeguard your pots and lovingly-planted flora, move them inside – especially during a thunderstorm with strong wind gusts and lightning.

The same applies to any outdoor furniture that could be damaged by wind or hail, like cushions, decorative objects and sun umbrellas.

Park cars under shelter

Hail is one of the leading causes of dents to bodywork on cars and damage to windscreens, both of which can be costly to repair.

If hail is forecast during a storm, park a car in a garage or under shelter, if possible. 

If strong wind is expected, then avoid parking a car under trees as debris, or even the tree itself, could end up landing on the vehicle.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: How Austria banned everyone from the forest for 123 years

Don’t go into the forest

Whether walking or driving, the best advice is to stay from the forest or areas with lots of trees during a storm.

While sheltering under a tree can protect from rain or hail, lightning or strong wind can bring down trees. This makes the forest a dangerous place to be in a storm.

But if you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of being in a forest when a thunderstorm hits, stay away from low branches and tree trunks and crouch down low. Place any walking sticks or metal poles away from you and stay away from metal fences.

Avoid risky activities

Certain outdoor activities are especially hazardous if there’s a lightning storm. 

Any activity in an open area or that puts you into contact with water or metal is strongly advised against. So that means fishing, swimming, boating, cycling and golfing are out until the storm is over. 

Keep torches and candles ready

Power cuts are common during storms, so keep a stock of candles and torches ready in case you end up without electricity for several hours.

It’s also a good idea to have a portable USB charger to make sure your phone doesn’t run out of battery during an emergency.

Who to call in an emergency

These are the numbers to call if you need help from the Austrian emergency services during a storm.

122 – fire service (Feuerwehr).

133 – police (Polizei).

144 – ambulance (Krankenwagen or Rettungswagen).

120 – ÖAMTC emergency breakdown service.

123 – ARBÖ emergency breakdown service.

140 – mountain rescue.

Finally, 112 is the single European emergency number, whose operators will direct you to the relevant services. This number can even be called on a locked mobile phone without needing the pin.

Find out more with The Local’s guide on who to call and what to say in an emergency.