Fighting NATO to Defend Schinveld Forest

Local residents of Schinveld
One of GroenFront!s current projects is stopping the felling of 6 hectares of mixed deciduous woodland in the east of the Netherlands. Another 30 ha would be partially destroyed. The area, called Schinveld Forest, is owned by the Dutch Ministry of Defence and borders a NATO airforce base in Geilenkirchen (Germany). The base is no longer used for active service but is a training camp for pilots of the large AWAC surveillance aircraft. NATO have requested the cutting of the trees as they are apparently “in the way” of certain low level flight take off and landing practices, and Dutch Minister Dekker has approved the plan. However, the local Council of Onderbanken is understandably against the loss of such a large area of woodland and local residents, who already suffer serious noise pollution from the base, have formed their own action group “Stop AWACSoverlast”.

GroenFront! have been involved in several actions and events in Schinveld over the last year. A campaign day was organised in May to support Stop AWACSoverlast and help spread information about NATO’s proposal. In September a “clean-up Schinveld” action involved clearing the woods of marker tape and paint marks placed by surveyors to outline the area to be felled. The surveying company responsible for work in Schinveld is Looplan and on 28th September the outside of their office in Arnhem was “decorated” to protest about their involvement in the felling program. On 9th October a temporary action camp was set up in the woods to protest against the felling and also to serve as an activists’ training weekend including demonstrations of building tree huts, climbing technique and planning action camps.

In early October hundreds of written protests from local residents, GroenFront! members and general public concerned about this pointless loss of a large, ecologically important and beautiful area of woodland were handed in to the Ministry. The final decision about if and when to start felling is imminent.

Also read a recent article in the New York Times:

SCHINVELD, the Netherlands — Along a little country road, right on the Dutch-German border, a showdown is in the making, one in which normally peace-loving citizens are determined to take on the world’s most powerful military alliance. On the Dutch side of the road stands a forest of mainly oaks and birches. On the German side a great space unfolds, bare as a billiard table and ringed with swiveling surveillance gear. That is Geilenkirchen airport, the home base of NATO’s Awacs fleet.

“We’re unique,” said Capt. Jonathan Riley, speaking of the coven of 17 spy planes that can cast their powerful radar high and wide. “NATO does not normally own military aircraft but this is NATO’s own fleet.”
It came in very handy when the East bloc was just a hop away, but with the cold war over and spy missions now operating out of Greece and Turkey, this base is solely an Awacs training site. That means doing practice runs, flying loops and roaring over a dozen villages and towns here.

Most jarring, residents say, the lumbering planes with the big radar mushroom on their backs use 1970’s engines so earsplitting that they were banned from European civilian aircraft two decades ago. “Sometimes we go mad,” said Jac Fijnaut, who moved here long before the Awacs first arrived, in 1982. On some days, he said, he has counted up to 40 takeoffs and landings. During night flights, he said, “we wake up from the powerful lights and the shrieking and whistling engines.”

Mr. Fijnaut and others have set up a protest group, backed by doctors, teachers and businessmen, and also a hot line to record complaints about noise and pollution. He shows an anguished letter signed by 11 nursing and retirement homes. Farmers have brought along fuel-stained vegetables. But the group feels ignored, both by the base and by the Dutch government, a NATO member.

Demonstratie tegen de NAVO
So now the angry citizens believe they have found a weapon more effective than their letters and petitions: by NATO’s calculations, the growing oaks and birches of the Schinveld forest will soon reach into the Awacs flight path. NATO wants them cut. Schinveld has refused.
The tree impasse may not make it on any European security agenda, but the intense discussions here — about the rising anti-base sentiments; about the loss of quality of life because of some distant threat — reflect a broader unresolved debate in Europe. While some politicians are lobbying to put more military teeth into Europe’s foreign policy, many pacifist citizens may not want to pay the taxes or cope with the inconveniences of an expanded military.
In this densely populated border region, where Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands converge, the older generations say they have had their earful: since the British built the Geilenkirchen base after World War II, it has held British fighter squadrons, American Pershing missiles and now the noisy Awacs, whose only stated mission here is to practice. Either the Awacs should train somewhere else, or install more modern, quieter engines, in the strongly held view on the Dutch stretch of the border. Brig. Gen Axel Tuttelmann, commander of the base, has a brisk riposte. “We are just aiming at one thing, which is that these trees are removed to ensure our safety,” he said. “To move the whole base would cost a huge amount of money.”
People on the German side cut their trees because they saw the reason, even if they did not like it, added
the general, who is German. “We can provide cover for all of Europe,” he said. Replacing the engines would cost about $800 million, General Tuttelmann said. “The politicians have to decide if they want to spend this money.” But pilots must practice, he continued. “The whole issue of the trees is just an obstacle to prevent us from flying.”
Precisely, said Huub Meijers, the mayor of Schinveld-Onderbanken. “If we cut our trees, the planes will come in even lower and create more noise and pollution,” he said. “We’ve seen too many broken promises. We’re not issuing a cutting licence.”

In nearby Brunssum, Clemens Brocken, the mayor, said he supports that view because, even though a number of his townspeople work on the base, the town suffers from excessive noise.
With the Dutch ministers of defense and of the environment due to give their opinions soon, the different parties have mustered arguments and statistics. Opponents argue that some 300,000 people in a 15-mile radius suffer from the base, while fewer than 1,000 civilians benefit from jobs there. A group of physicians has said the impact of the noise and exhausts is seriously underestimated.
Mr. Fijnaut is keeping stacks of letters: from schoolteachers, camping sites, health care workers. One is from the director of a crematory in Heerlen, deploring “the painful interruptions of farewell ceremonies because the speaker cannot be heard.”

Captain Riley, the base spokesman, also has a stack of documents: colored graphics of prescribed landing slopes and obstacle-free zones and profiles of the trees identified as hazards if they grow another few feet. “We have already exported 60 percent of our practice flights to respond to local concerns,” he concedes. “They are loud, no question.”
On the German side, Franz Bemelmans, the mayor of Geilenkirchen, which benefits most from the base, is furious. He says his Dutch colleagues are being shortsighted because the base infuses millions of dollars into the local economy. “We should join together to defend the economy of the region and support the base,” he said. “We razed our forest to the ground.”