What will happen with the pride of The Białowieża Forest?

In the latest Echa Leśne magazine there is a worth reading article on “the Prof. Wladyslaw Szafer Landscape Reserve” and on the current situation of this pride of the Białowieża Forest.

In the latest Echa Leśne magazine there is a worth reading article on “the Prof. Wladyslaw Szafer Landscape Reserve” and on the current situation of this pride of the Białowieża Forest.

“The Prof. Wladyslaw Szafer Landscape Reserve” within the last 10 years has changed beyond recognition – the article “The Białowieża pride” informs.  

The reserve was devised by Władysław Szafer, the author of modern nature conservation in Poland. A year after Poland regained its independence, professor came to the Białowieża with a delegation, consisting of among others prominent forester Jan Kloska, in order to find pre-war remainder of bison herd. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to find it, but the beauty and the natural value of the Białowieża made such an impression on professor, that he decided to create in Poland the very first National Park. Yellowstone National Park, which is the first national park in the world, was used as an exemplary model.

Apart from the “park of nature” at the heart of Białwieża Forest, that later became the Białowieża National Park, professor Szafer proposed founding reserves, including reserve located along Hajnówka-Białowieża road. “We want to include to our park of nature units – he wrote – in order to preserve, along the main road that leads to the Białowieża Forest, the original characteristics, that will be very important for tourists admiring the view while travelling to the Białowieża. (…) In my estimation this roadside reserve zone would not be complete, but so called partial reserve, it means that at a certain distance from the highroad, the tree felling, using group selection method, could be implemented".

Read more about a non-decreasing bark beetle gradation in the Białowieża.

Other generations of naturalists and tourists were impressed by the tree stands, growing on these lands, which survived the World War II and even the temporary reserve disbanding in 1955 (it was reestablished in 1969). The area of reserve was then extended by adding another forest fragments, near Hajnówka, that have already recovered after the Germans attack. - Białowieża visitors bowed down deeply before this forest - recollects Hajnówka Forest District manager Grzegorz Bielecki. The forest was covered mainly with spruce, which as some say talked with the heavens – some of those trees were over 50 metres high! Oaks, ashes, maples and linden grew on very fertile soils.

This diversified, with regard to age and species area of Białowieża, which seemed to be optimal for nature conservation, tourism as well as education, existed until recently. Today those fragments are nothing but a memory.

How was it possible, that within a few years’ time the reserve has changed so drastically? That there is less than 10 percent of alive dominant in this forest spruce trees. Moreover, there is almost nothing left of the oldest and the biggest spruces. Who let this happen: spruce bark beetle or people who let the insect do its job?

Landscape reserve was and still is a partial reserve, it means that certain treatment activities are allowed there. For many years foresters didn’t have serious problems with obtaining permissions to perform these activities. All interested parties: foresters, scientists and office workers – (apart from the most radical environmental activists) did realize that the spruce bark beetle population should be kept under control. Only this would guarantee achieving aim, namely the conservation of Białowieża landscape within the reserve.

However, in 2008 the Act on nature conservation was changed, the regional directorates for nature conservation were established and the massive development of the bark beetle population started for good. Foregoing nature conservation officer permissions to log single, freshly infested trees were replaced by rejections or simply a silence. Yet the legal status of reserve did not change at all. Many absurd situations took place at that time, for instance when foresters brought an application regarding logging of a few trees in 2008 the (negative) response came two years later. Meanwhile bark beetles were attacking trees more rapidly. It is assumed that bark beetle, after reproducing and leaving one tree may kill another 30 spruces. In order to prevent further infestation, it is necessary to log and remove from the forest, within 2-3 weeks, freshly beetle-infested trees. The reproductive cycle occurs 3 or even 4 times a year. No wonder that after a few years, instead of several dozen of infested trees, there are 94 000 dead spruces in the reserve. Ten years ago it was very hard to find even one beetle-infested spruce in the landscape reserve-says the Białowieża Forest District manager Dariusz Skirko – Now you may look for a healthy, not killed by the bark beetle tree for a very long time.

Dead spruces will stand where they are now for a few more years. Then, most of them will fall over. Scientists assume that considering the conditions in the Białowieża Forest most of the trees will collapse between 5 and 10 years after their dieback. That means - very soon. Dead spruces lead to the death of other tree species. Aged pines and oaks die without spruce crowns that once protected them against wind and sun.

No one in their right mind can ignore a threat that tens of thousands of those trees pose. Especially when most of them stand nearby busy roadways, local roads or along tourist routes. Therefore Białowieża forest districts log trees that are located along roadside Hajnówka-Białowieża for some time. That is why visitors who travel along this road may sometimes see an apocalyptic view – piles of logged trees. Many people say that those trees were logged by foresters for the purpose of selling. This is unfortunately common misconception, spread also by certain media. Felled trees will remain in the forest ecosystem until their natural decay. Until now, fortunately, there were no serious accidents, however, after every stronger gale the roadway becomes impassable.

Thousands “extracurricular” metres of dead wood increase fire danger rating levels. The positive influence of this wood on forests and environment is well known by the foresters. The amount of dead wood has been increasing for 25 years not only within Białowieża forest districts’ areas but also within the State Forests’ areas. It serves many insect, fungi and plant species. The question is where the upper limit of this increase is. The upper limit above which the amount of dead wood does not support the biodiversity, on the contrary it radically increases the fire danger rating levels or it causes the waste of the precious material.

This reserve is nothing but a mirror reflecting problems of the entire Białowieża Forest. It goes without saying that decisions made today will determine for many years the future of Białowieża. It is obvious that those decisions shall be substantive and based on scientific knowledge, made not under the influence of emotions, ideology or politics. Ideology which agitates for the complete banishment of human from the Białowieża (also from those parts that are planted and maintained by human) and for implementing the passive conservation within the whole area (today this kind of conservation is implemented within the area of the National Park and reserves). Where will this radical approach lead to? Will it really serve the ecological wealth of this precious for every Polish citizen treasure?

According to many foresters, the decay of spruce forest is just the beginning of changes that may happen to Białowieża habitats, including those located within the Szafer Reserve. Grzegorz Bielecki is sure of this: I’ve been working in the department of forest management planning for ten years, in soil-habitat brigade. Also within the area of the Białowieża National Park, where the spruce massive dieback occurred – he says. Therefore I’m able to predict what will happen in other parts of the Białowieża Forest, as well as in this reserve. In many places there will appear sapling stands of hornbeam, shrub lands of hazel, and in less fertile habitats – expansive and remaining for many years - small-reed.

According to the forest district manager, on account of massive fall of huge amounts of spruce needles, the unfavorable processes of soil podzols are very likely to appear.

The forest district manager Dariusz Skirko confirms these predictions. – We, the foresters, want to hand over the Białowieża Forest precious and alive to our successors. Meanwhile spaces, that used to be covered with spruces, pines and oaks will be filled with hornbeam and will not allow Białowieża species to restore quickly. Białowieża Forest will become a typical forest, not the one as we have in our minds – with old and alive oaks, maples, linden and spruces. Will people still want to visit it?