Old growth beech forests identified in Albania

Abdulla Diku, forest expert from PSEDA-ILIRIA organisation, and Lulezim Shuka, Professor at the Department of Biology of the University of Tirana, recently published a comprehensive 144-page paper about old beech forests in Albania. The paper deals with the ongoing forest degradation in Albania. It further indentifies old growth beech forests and discusses their protective status as well as the necessity to protect them.

Please also read: Wilderness in Albania?

Forest degradation in Albania

Albania is currently ranked as the country with the least forest resources in Europe. Based on data from the national forest cadastre and INSTAT (2017) the country has about 1,05 Mio. ha of forest, covering 36.6% of the country’s territory.  In the last 20 years, the average timber volume per hectare has decreased by 40%. At the moment the cutting of the forests exceeds their growth by about 2-3 times. This is especially visible if you compare the percentages of virgin forests from 1997 and 2017: in 1997 about 7% of the national forestry stock area was virgin forest, in 2017, only 1% accounts for virgin forests. This drastic decrease of virgin forests over the last 20 years is an alarming signal. Next to logging, old-growth forest ecosystems are threatened by fire, grazing, hunting, waste, erosion, road construction, Hydro-power plants and complicated land ownership situations.

EWS - Albania Prokletie -03087_

Definition and Identification of Old Growth Beech Forests 

The Albanian forestry terminology describes old growth or virgin forests as cluster of mature and over-mature trees, usually over 120 years old, in a natural structure. The authors of this paper propose the following definition:

(i) Naturally generated forests, (ii) forests which have not experienced significant human impact during their development, (iii) forests where trees of age ≥120 years prevail, (iv) forests that are located in uniform territorial units (unfragmented) and (v) forests that occupy a minimum area of 100 ha.

To identify old growth forests, in particular beech forests, in Albania the following indicators where used by the authors:

  1. Age of forest clusters (over 120 years old);
  2. A minimum area ≥ 150 ha;
  3. Topography and homogeneity of the area (unfragmented);
  4. Lack of human influence in the development of forest ecosystems (no human influence exist in the dynamics of forest development).
  5. The opportunity to guarantee the management and protection of these forest clusters under the current, undisturbed conditions

Wilderness potential of the Albanian old growth beech forests

Old growth forests without human intervention are an essential part of Wilderness in Europe. The indicators used by the authors of the presented paper overlap strongly with the indicators of the European Wilderness and Quality Standard and Audit System. It is important to highlight that the authors not only took the natural conditions of the forests into consideration. They also included the opportunity to manage and protect the forests (5.) in the set of indicators. This combination of natural features and management commitment is essential for proper Wilderness protection and is the backbone of the EWQA.

The authors further pick up three of the Wilderness qualities: A minimum size and in this case also a minimum age (1. and 2.); undisturbedness, meaning that the forests are unfragmented and not disturbed by any infrastructure or settlements (3.); undevelopment, meaning no human influences to the natural development of the forest ecosystem (4.); The fourth Wilderness quality, naturalness, is partly included in the age indicator (1.), as trees will mostly just reach this age in a natural forest without forestry operation.

 Location of the beech forests

This process identified six old growth beech forests in Albania, shown in the map below.

  1. Livadhi i Harushës/ She-bear’s Meadow (Malësi e Madhe Municipality)
  2. Lumi i Gashit/ Gash River (Tropoje Municipality)
  3. Curraj i Epërm/Upper Curraj (Tropoje Municipality)
  4. Lumi i Tropojës/ Tropoje River (Tropoje Municipality)
  5. Zall-Gjoçaj (Mat Municipality)
  6. Rrajcë (Përrenjas Municipality)

These six old growth beech forest clusters represent unique natural areas. So far, these forests have not experienced any significant human impacts. Four of these six forests (Livadhi i Harushës, Lumi i Gashit, Curraj i Epërm, Lumi i Tropojës) are located in the southern region Albanian Alps. Surveys from 2016 from students from the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences (Czech University of Life Sciences Prague) show that two of the forests host trees older than 250 years. In Lumi i Gashit, the largest identified beech forest cluster, the students surveyed 35 trees. They found nine trees to be older than 250 years, two of them are even between 401-450 years old. In Curraj i Epërm the students surveyed 32 trees. They found 8 trees to be more than 250 years old, four of them between 300-350 years old.

Protective status of Albanian old growth beech forests

Only two of the six forests are currently under protection and are part of the national system of protected areas: Lumi i Gashit is protected as IUCN category Ia and Rrajca as IUCN category II. Livadhi i Harushës and Lumi i Tropojës have been proposed as the core zone of the “Albanian Alps” National Park in 2016. This National Park would be IUCN category II. Curraj i Epërm has been proposed as the core zone of the “Nikaj-Mertur” Natural Municipal Park in 2014. This park would be IUCN category IV. However, none of these three proposals have been approved yet.

Importance of protecting the Albanian old growth beech forests

The six forests are the only areas in Albania that are home to bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx ssp. balcanicus). They furthermore host chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and the European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Numerous endangered species, many included in the national red list, inhabit these old growth forests as well. Additionally, the diverse beech forests host at least 81 endangered and red-listed plant species.

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Europe-wide networks, such as the UNESCO Ancient Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Parts of Europe, highlight the international importance of old growth beech forests in Europe. The European Wilderness Network also includes several primeval and old growth beech forests, such as Uholka-Shyrokyy Luh  WILDForest, the Maramarosh WILDForest as well as the Kalkalpen WILDForest. The category of WILDForests protects undisturbed and untouched remnants of primeval or old growth forests in Europe. The six identified Albanian old growth beech forests show potential to meet the criteria of the EWQA. The European Wilderness Society will support the authors in their effort to protect these unique ecosystems from any harm. EWS further aims to plan a visit to these areas to verify and confirm their potential to become a partner of the European Wilderness Network. 

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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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