A conversation with Walter Amann from the FBG Jagdberg and Jodok Batlogg
The following text is the transcript of an interview in which Christian Lampert of WISTO Vor(w)ort with Walter Amann, managing director of the Forstbetriebsgemeinschaft Jagdberg and Tree.ly founder Jodok Batlogg, talk about their goals and plans for the future, as well as the motivations behind Tree.ly's ability to convince more and more forest owners to use the full potential of their forests.
Christian Lampert: Hello and welcome to a new edition of our Wisto Foreword Podcast format. My name is Christian Lampert and I'm pleased to have two exciting interviewees in the Postgarage. Namely, Jodok Batlogg, the founder of Tree.ly and Walter Amann from the Forstgemeinschaft Jagdberg. Good morning. Thank you very much for the time. We're going to jump right in. Jodok, question for you, what does Tree.ly actually do? How can you describe that in simple terms to someone who's never heard of it?
Jodok Batlogg: We help ensure that our forests are preserved for the future, that the CO₂ storage that takes place there is maintained and expanded. So far, timber harvesting is the only way to make money from the forest, which is of course a sad thing in the sign of climate change. Forest owners should also be compensated for other services they provide with their forest, that are, ecosystem services. For this, we need systems and tools that this value creation can take place. We are building a digital platform for this.
Christian Lampert: That means it can be understood in a way that you can assess or calculate the value and performance of a forest?
Jodok Batlogg: Forest owners develop their forest better, better means that more CO₂ is stored or not released. The forest owner:in gets money if he/she manages the forest accordingly. We create an additional flow of money into the forest.
Christian Lampert: Where does this money flow come from?
Jodok Batlogg: From companies that voluntarily neutralise their CO₂ balance. That is, companies usually try to avoid emissions, reduce existing emissions, and what's left are those that are unavoidable. These unavoidable emissions can be offset. There are various options for this on the voluntary CO₂ market. These include, for example, cooking stoves in Africa, methane facilities in India, hydropower in China, but there are also local CO₂ projects and ground storage. We are developing a system to measure CO₂ storage in forests. Certificates can be generated for this storage.
Christian Lampert: That means it's certainly exciting for companies, but I think also for private individuals. Whereas it's actually about making a contribution in the direction of CO₂ avoidance in regional forestry.
Jodok Batlogg: That is our vision, that every private forest owner who manages his forest appropriately is rewarded. At the moment, unfortunately, we can only serve larger forest owners with an area of over 500 hectares with our methodology. Later, when our digital platform is ready, we expect to be able to cover small private forest owners over the next year. We are currently talking about CO₂, but the forest performs many other services that will need to be evaluated and measured in the future.
Christian Lampert: We have now heard a lot in the direction of sustainability, but also about regional value creation. Sustainability, emissions avoidance and CO₂ storage are on everyone's lips. What was one of the main motivations to start this project or what is behind it? How did you come up with the idea of doing something like this?
Jodok Batlogg: I've done quite a few things in my life. The last one was an international technology company based in San Francisco. It used investor money to create new technologies for industrial data. I was thinking in September 2020, in the context of this whole Corona lockdown, it's not good going slow or going in the wrong direction with business. It can't go on like this, we have to go in a different direction. This was a breakpoint where I decided, I want to be in climate technology. I want to combine my knowledge around technology, team building and team leadership. Then I started thinking about the field. Oceans as well as permafrost soils or rainforests are not very present in Europe, but our native forests make a huge contribution. With that I realised, I want to do something with the forest, with technology and people. I started on a white sheet of paper and thought about what to do. That was totally scary because I only had two calendar items that day. A talk at the Rotary Club and oral hygiene. Those were my appointments for the whole year. With the plan to do something for the forests and save the forests, that's how it started.
Christian Lampert: It's an exciting start, but how did you get all your knowledge? How can you think of something like that, someone like you who has done a lot, how do you start something like that?
Jodok Batlogg: Fortunately, I have quite a large network. So I shimmied from person to person and got to know people from the surrounding area. In the Vorarlberg Forest Association, for example, I got to know Walter Amann. As a forest expert, he knows a lot about the forest, and as a forester, he understands the needs of the forest. There are many experts, we have met many and talked to many. That's great because it's complementary knowledge. Meanwhile, I was able to greatly expand my knowledge of the forest. I am a nature person, but I also have skills in this sector, which is underrepresented. In return, I'm not connected to a lot of interest groups, which shows that you can be much more efficient on the road with this start-up mindset. Can move things and when young foresters and technologies meet, magical things happen, it feels like.
Christian Lampert: Not only magical things probably happen, but there are quite a few challenges to solve. What is the path? What problems did you guys face in the beginning or what were the biggest challenges to get this off the ground?
Jodok Batlogg: We still face big problems, we don't know if it will finally work, but we are trying. That's a bit of the definition of entrepreneurship for me, that you see opportunities and you try to take advantage of the opportunities, regardless of what resources are available. You believe in something, I'm all alone, and think to myself, now we're going in the right direction. I'll find people to come along with me and think it's a good idea too. The big difficulty is that all this regulatory stuff is not developed yet. The EU laws are just developing, you don't know exactly what direction it's going in yet. We often work with public agencies, which often have difficulties when there is no legal basis yet. The transition from voluntary to legally bound climate protection. Still, there are quite a few opportunities for a start-up to move quickly. The risks in summary: Regulatory issues, also the whole issue of figuring out what is right, what works at all with the new crises of our time. As a result, the willingness to pay for climate protection has taken a bit of a back seat.
Christian Lampert: You have also participated in the Innovation Call of the state of Vorarlberg, where completely new innovative ideas are sought or also awarded. To what extent did it help you or your company Tree.ly, how did it help you? Are these relevant parameters for you to participate in such things?
Jodok Batlogg: Yes, that has been extremely important, without that impetus at the beginning, we would have had greater difficulties getting started. We are defining a new way of how this company is financed and how it grows. There are advisory boards, board of directors that are trying to steer this company. What the experience and previous companies bring was that I really didn't want to do that anymore. But rather a company that has healthy growth, that is of course profitable, and of course promotes sustainable development. Which is also people-centric. All these financing possibilities, how such a company is built up, are different. This initial spark has been helped a lot by the Innovation Call. But other partners such as the Chamber of Commerce and the “Austria Wirtschafts Service”, which provide funding in this green preseed area, have also helped us massively to get on our feet.
Christian Lampert: Exciting approach and exciting how it is starting. We have Walter Amann with us as our second interviewee. Walter, you are the managing director of the Forstbetriebsgemeinschaft Jagdberg. What does the Forstbetriebsgemeinschaft actually do and what are your tasks?
Walter Amann: The Forstbetriebsgemeinschaft is now an association of 12 forest owners. We consist of six communities and six agricultural communities. It is the first forest management association that exists in Vorarlberg, the FBG Jagdberg started in 2001. The areas are located in the Walgau, south side, but in the meantime we have also expanded towards Brandnertal. We also serve the community of Bürserberg. What does a forestry company do, what does a forester do? We try to manage the forests that are entrusted to us, but of course also to maintain them. As should be known, the forest has a lot of functions to fulfill. It is not only about harvesting the wood and trying to sell it as lucratively as possible. We have many other extensive tasks to fulfill.
Christian Lampert: In the meantime, the sustainability issue, global warming, the whole range of topics, is very much discussed.what demands are made on the forest nowadays? What is its benefit and how can man support it?
Walter Amann: It is certainly a very exciting time that is accompanying us at the moment. On the subject of climate change, especially in the forest, we have a major challenge. As previously stated, the forest fulfills many functions. Especially in Vorarlberg, it is not only the utility and recreational function, but also the protective function such as air pollution control, protection against erosion, avalanches, etc.. These functions must also be fulfilled in the future. We are all aware of how fast climate change is happening. We know how fast average temperatures change and the forest is an inert instrument in this respect. Because we know ourselves, a tree becomes 100 to 300 years old and is now confronted with change in its lifetime. I always have a little example: a tree cannot migrate compared to animals. If an animal gets too cold or too warm, it can change its location. It is the same with humans. But the tree stands at its location and has to cope with this situation and that is a challenge for the forest. Not for the forest really, but for us because we depend on the forest, the forest doesn't need us, we need it. At some point, the forest would naturally adapt to these new challenges, different temperatures and precipitation situations, etc. However, this takes many decades and during this time the forest then cannot fulfill the function we expect from it. Now we are challenged to maintain and shape this forest so that it can fulfill its functions despite climate change. We promote tree species that can better cope with the expected and already existing situations. The tree species that are already on this frontier now will undergo some transformation. We hope that we make the right decisions so that we all still have the opportunity to experience the forest.
Christian Lampert: So we're already hearing, the resources in the forest have very many functions or very many applications. We've already heard from Jodok, with Tree.ly they want to make the whole thing attractive for forest owners as well. Also to keep the forest fresh and young, so to speak, and also to make it operational. How is that from your point of view from a forest management community? How do you benefit from this project, from the cooperation, what does Tree.ly bring you?
Walter Amann: This is a very exciting approach that Jodok Batlogg has developed with Tree.ly. I'm always up for innovation, and I think this is a very good way for forest owners to get additional funding. Forest conversion costs a lot of money and is partly done with tax money. Nevertheless, it is necessary to invest extremely much and maximally in the forest. An alternative to the forest in our situation is: avalanche barriers, concrete, etc. Of course we don't want that and of course it would cost X times more than a healthy forest. Now, this opportunity allows us to use the forest as a CO₂ reservoir in a certain way. The possibility of additional financial resources to lure, which are ultimately also invested in the forest. This gives us greater scope to be able to concern ourselves even more intensively with the care, future and development of forests -actually for our descendants. After all, this is necessary and important. Probably at some point the state, federal government or even the EU will have to react, they will realise that the forest is in a difficult situation. Tax resources will then be made available, for example through grants, but with the cooperation with Tree.ly, the support and money really comes from the business community. After all, this has contributed to and is still partly responsible for the fact that CO₂ pollution in the air is too high. We try to manage the forest so that the raw material wood can be produced. By providing the raw material, we can substitute other energy-intensive raw materials, and at the same time we provide a CO₂ store in the forest. It is the eierlegende Wollmilchsau that we need. On the one hand, we need the CO₂ reservoir to store CO₂ from the air. On the other hand, we also need the forest as a substituting factor in wood utilisation, by using wood more and as optimally as possible.
Christian Lampert: You can actually already hear out, the forest is perhaps, even if it has this image, nothing inert or there is a lot of work, care and money behind it. Tree.ly is in that case another very good instrument, which can support you to provide also these necessary financial resources. From their experience, you are so to say pilot or part of the pilots at Tree.ly. What are your experiences, what can you already give to other forest owners in this respect and what are your advices?
Walter Amann: Of course, we're still at the very beginning. At the moment, the certification phase has to run positively. First via TÜV Nord and then these credits and certifications will be sold on the market. We have not yet earned a single euro with Tree.ly, but we expect to receive money in 2023 and to be able to reinvest it in the forest. It would be great if this opportunity was also offered to small forest owners. Tree.ly is working to make it possible for small forest owners to participate as well. This is especially important because we have a lot of private forest and small structured forests in Vorarlberg. Many feel that the forest functions like a piggy bank, one that sits around and stands on its side, one that you don't touch. The additional source of income motivates forest owners to be involved with the forest. It's not that you can get extremely rich, but it's definitely possible to farm. This management, as we have it in Vorarlberg in particular, is in my opinion very exemplary for other countries. We are very small-scale, extremely close to nature, and we can prove this on the basis of various studies. Our type of forest management should actually have been lived in Vorarlberg for decades, centuries. It is very positive that we not only produce wood, but can also prove very good references from the biodiversity side in an ecological way.
Christian Lampert: Thank you Walter for the exciting insight, really important how this is to the view of the forest enterprise and forest owner. Jodok vlt. briefly back to you for the conclusion for our podcast. You have your location in the Postgarage in Dornbirn, which is also a kind of Innovation Hub that we have in Vorarlberg. How important is it for you to have this environment or to be in Vorarlberg in general? Is this the right location decision to be able to implement something like this?
Jodok Batlogg: For me, the decision was made several years ago. I want to be able to get to work on foot or by bike and still experience mutual exchange, social contacts and working together. With various companies, the campus area is always a magnet, an exciting point where many things happen.
Christian Lampert: Something I haven't asked yet, but which probably interests many of our listeners, is how many people actually work at Tree.ly? How many heads are involved in developing it?
Jodok Batlogg: There are about eleven people in our company now. What's exciting is where people are at the moment, it's constantly changing. Lukas is currently in Andelsbuch in the Guten Stube, so he doesn't have to drive to Dornbirn every day. Tobias is in Valencia right now because the fall is a bit too humid for him. Then we have Marie, who is in Tarifa right now and will go back to Northern Germany later. Matthias is in Boston. Isa is getting her kids used to the new rhythm at school right now and is working from home a lot. Stefanie, Fiona and Alexander are in Dornbirn and not to forget Roman, because he is based in Carinthia. So everyone can work with us, no matter where he/she is and how he/she travels. That's super fun, because people are in all kinds of places and we still meet somewhere together at regular intervals.
Christian Lampert: That sounds like a very broad, internationally positioned young start-up actually with headquarters in Vorarlberg. Where is the journey going, what are your plans, maybe even dreams, where should Tree.ly be in a few years?
Jodok Batlogg: That's exactly what I enjoy, working with a young, old, totally diverse group. For people who want to make a difference, rallying people like that around me and spending time with them is just insanely fun. The question that drives us is, what does a world that works for everyone look like? That's actually the question where I think everyone can start. I'm looking at, what does my world that I live in look like that works for everyone. How do I conduct myself and how do we build our business? Then also very concretely, what do I do myself so that this vision is also visible. We ask ourselves this question again and again, and when we work together in a setting like this and this question comes up again in between, you always meet more people who think this way. That's totally fun to be a part of such a new upcoming community, it's like a secret handshake of people being in a club.
Christian Lampert: That's perfect, that's the best closing we can have here. I say, thank you very much for the interview, thank you very much for the exciting insights. All the best and good luck. We are looking forward to hearing from you and your project in the coming years.
Special thanks to WISTO for the interview.