Vihorlat Mountains – How to approach the conservation dilemmas in forests?

December provided an opportunity to visit one of the Europe’s Primeval and ancient forests of the Carpathians and other regions of Europe in Slovakia. Vihorlat Mountains (Vihorlatské vrchy) conserves one of the 78 components of the largest transnational UNESCO natural heritage property in the world. I had the chance to visit this outstanding forest as part of a workshop organised within BEECH POWER project by Slovakian National Forest Centre in all of its winter splendour.

The UNESCO recognised the outstanding universal value of the large complex of beech primeval forests extending along the ar cof the main range of the Vihorlat Mountains. The site has undergone boundary and zoning modifications in the last year, which are due to be submitted for the approval or the World Heritage Committee in February 2020. And yet the questions arose whether the forests within the designation actually are primeval and how the conservation of the area should be managed.

Vihorlat was one of the component parts in the original UNESCO designation of the Primeval forests of the Carpathians in 2007, when a large area was designated and committed to non-intervention management, with extensive buffer zone as well. The core area covers 2578 ha and the buffer zone extends over further 2413 ha. However, since then it has been discovered that the data and boundaries inscribed on the UNESCO list do not correspond entirely to the situation on the ground, which is why Slovakia embarked on the rezonation project. And how did that go?

The rezonation has now been completed, which more comprehensively capture several previously established Strict Nature Reserves and include areas around the lake Morské oko. The core area was restricted to 1550 ha with 610 ha of protective buffer zone and 246 ha of landscape buffer zone. Additionally, the National Forest Centre also performed the mapping of naturalness of the stands that are now proposed to be included in the component part. The results show that there are still some very young stands that have been formerly managed within the component part, as well as some plantations of fir and spruce.

An interesting conundrum now presents itself. During the nomination and inscription processes, all of the nominated areas have to show that they are worthy of the title UNESCO World Heritage, proving that their forests are at least ancient, that they have been entirely left to natural processes for decades if not centuries and that they bring significant contribution to the Outstanding Universal Value of the entire World Heritage property. And yet in this particular case, because the area already has the UNESCO brand, the conservationists are completely happy to look over the discrepancies within the core zone. The main argument is that in time nature will run its course and the entirety of the component part will be an ancient forest that deserves the protection. On the other hand, this argument can be perceived as hypocritical, as UNESCO is only supposed to protect the intact and nearly-intact forests.

Personally, as a nature conservationist, I am all for more areas in general to be strictly protected and for allowing nature to take over once again. While I recognise that the changing attitudes to protection and double standards present here must be incredibly annoying, to say the least, and that non-intervention in certain cases might prevent a climax beech forest from developing for decades to come, I am also convinced that more than one type of nature has a place in our protected areas. Whether this specific natural system has been present there before (i.e. an ecological baseline) or it will form completely a new, does not matter much, as long as it is not anthropogenic in its origin. Therefore, I also completely understand the position of conservationists in this specific case, where they just want to keep the large protected area in place with no intervention and see how they will develop in the future. Areas where nature can be at least partially undisturbed are incredibly rare in Europe, and conservation organisations have to fight tooth and nail to ensure their protection. Thus, it is not surprising that they can be very dismissive of the other side, after they have won one of the battles, even if it would be better if they could engage in a more productive discussions with the other side.

That being said, I must also admit that visiting the area was an interesting experience in itself. The forest was covered with the first proper winter snow and covered in frost and mist, giving it an etheral and mystical appearance, leached of all colour. The sensations of peace, wholeness, beauty, and hope were incredible. Yet, the combinations of older and younger stands within the core zone do prove a bit disconcerting at times. Part of our path led along a ridge (picture below), where on one side majestic and sometimes gnarled old beech trees reached over the abyss on the other side of the ridge, while to the other side a forest of young, thin beech trees were reaching up to the sky, in sharp contrast. One does then wonder what would be the better approach, to protect the already truly important forests of global importance or large areas to provide more area for biodiversity to thrive without human threats?

Written by Sašo Gorjanc, Slovenia Forest Service, project BEECH POWER

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