Belá WILDRiver under Threat

In the summer of 2018, Belá WILDRiver was removed from the European Wilderness Network. See why here

It is impossible to overlook the intensity and extent of excavations with heavy machines in the Bela river, Slovakia. The European Wilderness Society is concerned that this is also happening on the tributaries of the river. Particularly in the Tichá and Kôprová Valleys, inside the strictly protected zone of the Tatra National Park. “The concern is so great that the European Wilderness Society launched a process to remove the Belá WILDRiver from the European Wilderness Network”, said the Deputy Chairman of the European Wilderness Society.

Constructions in the Belá WILDRiver

The 16 km of Belá WILDRiver were subject of a European Wilderness Society Quick-Audit in summer 2017 and met the Bronze Wilderness Quality Standard. Auditors were already concerned about the ongoing extractive uses back then. Particular fishing in the lower part of river. However, the current situation is beyond any limits. Heavy machinery, like caterpillars, working in the river bed of this last wild river in Slovakia is simply not acceptable. The undevelopedness, undisturbedness as well as the naturalness of the river are under extreme threat. This puts the question if the Belá River should be excluded from the European Wilderness Network on the desk of the European Wilderness Society Advisory Committee.

The Belá WILDRiver is part of the 22 km long Belá River and is partially embedded in the Tatra National Park. Long periodes of high temperatures interrupted by extremely heavy storms and rainfall characterised this summer of 2018. These heavy rainfalls caused sudden swells of the water level leading to cut banks and the development of new river beds. Such dynamic processes are typical for a wild mountain river such as the Belá WILDRiver. Changing water levels and floods leading to sediment deposits and changing river beds are part of natural river morphodynamics. These natural dynamic processes of changing river beds are essential for a long-term natural flood protection.

Destructions in the name of flood prevention

Despite of the high value of the Belá River the Slovakian water management company- the administration of the Upper Váh River Basin – started constructions with heavy machinery only several weeks after the floods. They entered the river and started cleaning the river bed, piling gravel, cutting banks and removing trees. All of these activities are in line with the official Slovakian water management company policy. The objective of this activities were to implement legislative measures to prevent further floods. Marián Bocák, spokeswoman of the Slovakian water management company told a local newspaper:

“….we only perform the necessary interventions to ensure the functioning of the river bed, to prevent further flood damage, to ensure a smooth flow of water and to remove obstacles from the river bed.”

Bela WILDRIver © Thomas Kalisky
Bela WILDRIver prior the destruction © Thomas Kalisky

Local opinions about the activities on the Belá River

The following statements were translated from a local Slovakian newspaper:

Erik Baláž, Chairman of the Management Board Foundation Aevis, said,

“Legislation is giving the river managers the mandate to do certain activities, but excavators and bulldozer damage the water ecosystems long term.”

The director of the Tatra National Park Administration Pavol Majko told the newspaper,

“The management of the National Park is a member of the flood crisis management group. But we were only briefly informed about what was going to happen on the Belá River. The river did not deserve this. Fish and other species of European importance have been thrown on shore… The scope of work, was too technocratic, without a sensitive approach to the aquatic ecosystem. The riverbed has been modified in some places so that water toboggans were created, which only accelerate the flow speed. And all this was done long after the flood, when the flood was already gone for a couple of weeks.”

Scientists and experts from the Slovak Limnological Society and Slovak Ichthyological Society wrote that,

“The Belá is the only wild meandering river in Slovakia, and the river is a subject of research and monitoring already for decades. The uniqueness of this river is its diversity of habitat and species, whose existence depend on the permanent transport of sediments and the change of the river bed due to the dynamic water flow”

What will happen to the Belá WILDRiver

The European Wilderness Society together with the European Wilderness Society Advisory Committee is currently discussing and reviewing the certification of the Belá River as a WILDRiver.

“Cleaning a river after heavy storms and floods in such a way is not acceptable. It is a shame that the people not fully appreciate the treasure they have. A natural meandering river is the best long term flood prevention anyone can hope for. In Austria we are restoring rivers to their meandering state and in Slovakia the exact opposite is happening. We are now in the process to re-evaluate the situation of Belá river and their membership in the European Wilderness Network. We will announce the result soon,”

said the Chairman of the European Wilderness Society.

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The pictures in this post have been contributed by Mr. Paca and Mr. Kalisky.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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