"We have reserved one of the last natural fir-beech forests in Central Europe for you for the whole weekend," wrote Rastislav Mičaník in response to my request that he arrange accommodation for me on my visit to eastern Slovakia. "Be sure to bring a warm sleeping bag and sturdy pair of boots; the rest we will take care of," he added.
I was travelling to the far eastern corner of Slovakia, near the Ukrainian and Polish borders, to track wolves with Rastislav and his colleague, Viliam Bartuš, and learn about their efforts to protect some of the last bits of wilderness on the European continent.
From their base in Humenné, a drab, pre-fab town of about 30,000 inhabitants, the two monitor wolf populations and the state of forests in eastern Slovakia for Vlk ("Wolf" in Slovak), a national organization that has spent the past decade working to protect wolves and their habitats.
From Humenné we took a bus north and then hitched a ride to the small village of Nižna Jablonka near the Polish border. The proximity of the eastern border was evident in the signs, written in Slovak and Rusynian, the peculiar blend of Slovak and Ukrainian spoken by most of the local populace, as well as the slashed crosses atop the steeples of the Orthodox churches.
The rest of the way to the reserve we went on foot. We marched along the bottom of a valley and then, after a couple of kilometers, headed up a hill, taking careful, big steps in the thigh-deep snow. We passed through fields of stumps and gnarled undergrowth. Clearcuts stretched up the hillsides across the valley from us. The areas that were not denuded were covered with a mottle patchwork of different aged trees, mostly monocultures of fast-growing spruce.
In the distant past, before humans started chopping trees in earnest in this part of the world, virtually all of present-day Slovakia (like most of the rest of Europe) was covered by forests. In the Carpathian mountains, the first major change came between the 14th and 17th centuries, when Wallachian shepherds migrated across the ridges from east to west and, with axe and fire, created ridge-top meadows for their flocks. At the same time, human settlement spread through the valleys and nibbled at the base of the forested slopes.
Today, forests cover about 1,930,000 ha, or 40 percent of Slovak territory. Nearly all of this has been shaped by human hands to a greater or lesser extent. Not quite half could be considered "semi-natural," meaning that the composition of trees largely resembles that of a natural forest (differing chiefly in terms of age, height and density) and that the forest has the capacity to regenerate itself and does not need humans to plant seedlings, apply fertilizer, or spray pesticides and herbicides. A third of Slovak forests contain beech, somewhat less have spruce, oak makes up 14.5 percent, and pine, hornbeam, and fir each cover less than five percent.
The Udava beech-fir reserve that I was heading toward is one of 75 remaining fragments of natural forest in Slovakia. Together, they cover some 15,000-20,000 ha, or scarcely one percent of the country's forested area. Though relatively modest, the figure nevertheless represents some of the last virgin forests on the European continent.
The sign we had passed, welcoming us to the Poloniny National Park, seemed like a cruel joke. The area, which is part of the larger Eastern Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, which includes parts of neighboring Poland and Ukraine, had been National Park since 1997 and before then a protected landscape area. But this apparently meant little more than an extra smudge of green on tourist maps. Cutting was continuing, regardless of the designation.
On paper, the Slovak system of national parks and protected areas looks impressive, covering about 10 percent of the country's territory. In reality, the maps seem little more than a fig leaf. On aerial photos you can't tell the difference between those areas that are within and outside of the national park boundary.
The only solid dark green blotches are the fragments that are designated reserves, and thus strictly protected (in the case of the Poloniny National Park, 6.5 percent of the park's total area). Elsewhere, timber companies have gouged strips right up to the Polish frontier.
National parks in Slovakia are plainly not the pristine nature reserves that an American might expect. Over 11,000 people live in Slovak national parks, which also include extensive areas of private property. Economic activities are permitted, though they bear certain restrictions. Control of the extensive protected areas is also inadequate. There is on average one Slovak national park employee per 2,930 ha of area, compared for example with 129 ha per employee in Romania. Six rangers oversee the 29,805 ha of the Poloniny National Park.
The fundamental reason for the kind of brutal treatment to which the forested slopes are being exposed, though, is the conflict between the Slovak Forest Law and forest management plans on the one hand, and nature protection on the other. The two sets of policies and legislation have opposite approaches—one adopts a basically anthropocentric view, grounded in 19th century theory of rational forest management, which sees humans playing an important role not only in exploiting but also managing forest resources.
In contrast, legislation on nature conservation is based on a more "modern" ecological view that regards humans as part of, not superior to, ecological processes. This view regards forests as complex ecosystems, providing far more benefits, or "services" than just production of timber. The benefits include biodiversity, stable water regimes, production of soil, as well as stable landscapes. From this perspective, the Forest Law does not see the forest for the trees.
The conflict between the two approaches was recently underlined by the absurd situation in which Vlk was levied a fine of 10,000 Sk (roughly USD 250) by a district court for not felling trees in its new nature reserve in the Čergov mountains. The reserve, which has been established with private donations from around the world (see 2000 owners), was set up to keep the natural growth forest from being felled.
Establishment of the reserve responds to the national strategy on protecting biodiversity in Slovakia, passed by the Slovak government in August 1998 (decree no. 515/1998), which mandates the creation of forest reserves of at least 200 km2 by 2010. It also corresponds to international treaties signed by Slovakia, such as the Bern Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity. The Vlk reserve could also help Slovakia's accession to the European Union by helping the country to fulfill the EU's requirement of designating and protecting valuable natural areas.
Nevertheless, according to a strict interpretation of both the letter and the spirit of the law on forestry, the fine levied on Vlk for not cutting its trees is both legal and justified.
The cross-cutting policies and legislation reveal the fault lines running across the issue of forestry in Slovakia, stretched between nature conservation on the one hand and commercial exploitation on the other. The fine levied at Vlk is clearly an extreme case—an exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, reality on the ground-the denuded slopes I was gazing at-showed plainly which of the two sides is stronger in the political tug-of-war.
Some battles have been won in the name of the environment. In 1998, direct action by Vlk, including activists hanging from trees and demonstrations in front of ministries, stopped the implementation of 234 clear cuts in the Polona UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the center of the country. The Forestry Law that was passed in 1993 limited the use of clearcutting, which until then had been the only method of harvesting timber in Slovakia. As a result, more benign management approaches, such as selective cutting, were introduced, and clearcutting dropped from 78 percent of wood harvests to the current 40 percent.
As a result, fewer large blocks of forest are now ripped from the hillsides than previously. Unfortunately, said Rastislav, thinner slices are now peeled off, bit by bit and close in time. The end effect is pretty much the same as taking out the trees all at once.
One innovative approach for "peeling" layers of trees off of hillsides involves attaching a steel cable to a tree at the top of a hill and pulling it down the hillside with a winch, located some 300 meters at the bottom of the slope, taking down a line of trees, and, in the process, ripping open the hillside.
More traditional methods of logging, like men-with-big-chainsaws, are also used. Trees are cut down and then dragged or "skidded" behind a tractor down the hillside to the nearest asphalted road, where they are loaded onto a truck for further transport. Dirt roads or even streambeds are used for this.
A deep ravine, the depth of a person, cut into the road we were following. It was a former logging road or "skidway", as Rastislav called it. He explained how skidding rips open the earth, exposing it to runoff. With each rain, the water digs deeper, eventually producing features like the ravine we were now skirting.
Without roots of plants and trees to hold it, the soil is quickly washed down the hillside. Viliam pointed out an outcropping exposing a small cross-section of the earth's surface. The top layer of soil was no more than a few centimeters deep, scarcely covering the bedrock below. The threadbare blanket of soil is the basis of life, and takes centuries to regenerate. That covering of life was being washed down the hillside into the streams below.
We came to a place where two streams merged—one came from the protected reserve we were heading toward; the other from a hillside that had been recently clearcut. The first was clear and slowly meandering, while the second was brown, choked with sediment and flowing quickly.
Forests play a vital role in regulating water, soaking it up when it is plentiful, and releasing it in times of scarcity. In a natural forest, the different levels of vegetation break the fall of raindrops. Roots hold the soil and soak up water. Soil that is rich in nutrients binds water molecules, acting as a sponge. Cutting down healthy forest ecosystems means cutting down that margin of absorption, turning heavy rainfall into flooding, and a deluge into disaster.
Indeed, the frequency and severity of flooding in Slovakia has increased significantly in recent years, in step with deforestation. The effect can be deadly. In 1998, a wall of water tumbling down a mountain streambed killed 48 people in the village of Jarovnice in eastern Slovakia.
Fortunately, no lives have been lost in the area we visited. Nevertheless, the cost of logging on communities downstream was still expensive. A few decades ago, the stream flowing through the community of Nižna Jablonka at the base of the valley was small enough to step across. Heavy logging in the watershed since the 1960s has increased the stream so much that small bridges have had to be built across it. The increased drainage has also disturbed the water table. Wells could no longer tap the groundwater, forcing the community to consider building expensive water systems.
In terms of water and flood management, the fate of Slovak forests is of importance not only to Slovak communities, but also to neighboring countries as well. Slovakia, which is sometimes called the "roof of Europe," straddles the divide between the Baltic and Black Sea watersheds. Water that falls on the country is either retained or flows north or south. Heavy runoff in Slovakia can spell serious flooding for its neighbors, as has occurred a number of times in the past several years.
The area of Eastern Slovakia is poor with high unemployment. Industry and agriculture are troubled. Many people seek work elsewhere; the overnight train to Prague is usually full of workers heading to the Czech capital for employment. Forestry is one of the few remaining mainstays of the local economy.
Regardless of the value of the forests that are being felled, I asked Rastislav: "How can you deny these people a living?" He nodded. He had grown up in the area, and certainly knew better than I what life here was like.
"The point is not to keep people from making a living," Rastislav explained. "Certain parts, those with particularly valuable natural features, like the present reserves, must be set aside. But in other areas, we can find a compromise of how to use the land without destroying it. We have always used wood from area forests, and we can continue to do so if we do it in a sustainable manner."
In addition to setting aside 20% of all forests for non-timber-producing functions, Vlk calls for selective logging methods that take only some trees while leaving others standing, and that leave the undergrowth undisturbed as much as possible. Clearcutting should be only allowed in pine forest stands on sandy soils as well as in poplar and willow stands. Whichever method is used, according to Vlk, 20 percent of trees should be left standing to the end of their natural life and left to rot. Finally, the forest protection organization calls for buffer zones to be left around springs and streams.
Such methods will result in less wood and higher prices. Not only producers, but also consumers will need to show greater responsibility toward forest resources and future generations.
One possible step in this direction is certification. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has one of a number of systems for certifying sustainable forestry management. Sustainable management not only does the environment a good turn, but can also create added value and serve as a marketing advantage for exports abroad. Demand for certified timber is growing particularly in Western Europe.
Ultimately, the relative increase in price of board feet due to sustainable forestry practices will be more than balanced by savings in costs due to erosion, loss of biodiversity, disturbed water regimes, unstable landscapes, etcetera.
Dig deep, though, and you uncover basic dsfunctionalities in our society that apply not just to forestry but to virtually all environmental "goods" held in common. Over the long-term, the overall cost of current short-sighted logging practices is clearly higher than more sustainable approaches. But the key question is who profits and who ultimately foots the bill.
Forestry companies denude the hillsides, and then pick up state subsidies for reforestation. Government and communities are left to pay the costs in terms of flood damage, dry wells and even human lives; only future generations will pay the full costs of current logging in terms of lost topsoil, reduced biodiversity, unstable water regimes, or global warming.
In the tug-of-war surrounding political decision-making regarding use of resources, it is the concentrated interests of forestry companies versus people like Rasto and Viliam to advocate the very dispersed and indirect interests of the rest of society. It is hardly an even playing field.
What is a forest?
As we neared the Polish border, we passed through areas of young spruce, planted after the area had been clearcut some 30 to 40 years ago. They looked like most of the forests I was accustomed to from Western and Central Europe-products of the "industrialization" of European forestry from the end of the 18th century, in which original stands had been felled and replaced by fast-growing spruce and other species. The trees were all the same age, and the undergrowth had been cleared.
The difference between these stands and the kind of mature, natural growth forest that is in the Udava reserve is like night and day. Take biodiversity: A 10 hectare area of mature, complex beech forest, including trees of different states and ages, from saplings to rotting trunks, provides a rich variety of habitats that are home to an average of 80 pairs of birds, including 35 different species. In contrast, 10 hectares in a "textbook" example of a well-managed, 70-year-old beech forest provides refuge for on average nine pairs of birds from two species.
Less than 5 percent of Slovak forests are older than 120 years. About a third are less than 40 years old. Another 40 percent are between 40 and 80 years old—in other words, over almost three-quarters of Slovak forests 80 years or younger. A mature forest takes 200 years or more to develop.
The more complex ecosystems in mature forests have much greater stability and resilience than the simpler systems of homogenous stands. As an analogy, take two spider webs: one complex, with a multitude of interconnected threads, and the other simple, containing only a few strands. Snip a strand in the first, and the web will continue to hold as the force is redistributed throughout the many strands that are left remaining. Snip one of the few strands in the second web, and the web as a whole may quickly fall apart.
Fortunately, Carpathian forests are in relatively better shape. Acid rain and other effects of pollution are still limited. However, the before and after pictures of the Jizera mountains provide a stark warning of how fast this could change, even without clearcutting.
Most people in Europe grow up thinking that the monocultures of spruce and other fast-growing species, with their tidy undergrowth, are forests in the fullest sense of the word. They do not realize that in ecological terms these plantations are little more than green deserts, with a fraction of the species, and ecological stability of natural woods.
In this sense, the estimated 220 fragments of natural woods covering over 110,000 ha across the Carpathian mountains are a treasure for all of Europe-not least as reminders of what the rest of the continent has lost.
After a long slog through snowdrifts and rain, we finally reached the Udava reserve. Rastislav's promises regarding my accommodation were no false advertisement. This forest was a stark contrast from the homogenous stands we had been passing through. Spindly trees were replaced by majestic beeches and firs a hundred meters tall and with massive trunks that two of us could barely girdle. It was a topsy-turvy world of tumbled down logs, leaning trees and young saplings pushing through the snow, making a break for sunlight in a clearing where old trees had come down.
We did not end up spending the night there. We were soaked to the bone and, however much I wanted to experience awaking in this beautiful place, the idea of climbing into a wet sleeping bag in freezing temperatures was less than appealing. As we headed down the hillside, though, I was thankful that there are people like Rastislav and Viliam who are willing to go far out of their way to assure that this place and others will exist for me to spend the night sometime in the future.
Andreas Beckmann, 23 April 2001
Photo by Juro Lukač, Wolf Forest Protection Movement.
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
Vlk (Wolf) Forest Protection Movement
Carpathians Ecoregion Initiative