Controversy over reforesting Bohemian Switzerland in wake of devastating blaze

Bohemian Switzerland a few months after the wildfire

The Bohemian Switzerland National Park was one of the most beautiful corners of the Czech Republic. Last summer, however, it was ravaged by a devastating wildfire. Within a broad debate on restoring the region, there is controversy about whether people should let nature take its course or if they should help by replanting as many trees as soon as possible.

Bohemian Switzerland a few months after the wildfire | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

A few months after the wildfire, experts and the local inhabitants are locked in a dispute over how to proceed in the areas ravaged by the blaze. I recently visited the National Park with Tomáš Salov, its spokesman. He took me around the worst affected areas pointing out that, no matter how devastating it was, the fire did not completely destroy the forest.

"It is not a homogenous burnt and blackened area. It is rather a mosaic. There are places where the wildfire burnt with enormous intensity. Then there are patches that the fire touched only lightly, the trees are standing and only their bark is blackened, but as the ground is covered with fallen leaves, you do not see any signs of fire. So, for example, there is a valley called Pravčický důl. During the wildfire, it became something like a huge fire cauldron due to the unique terrain conditions and draft, and everything burnt down. There are only charred tree trunks left and the ground is still completely black. But the valley we are standing in right now remained largely untouched for some reason. Perhaps because of the wind direction or more moisture in the ground, the wildfire did not devastate this part of the park."

Bohemian Switzerland a few months after the wildfire | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

National Park botanist Ivana Marková is one of the people who are against hasty reforestation. She argues that if people leave the forest alone, it will regenerate itself without a problem. In fact, the new growth would be better suited to the given climate.

"The first trees that will start growing here spontaneously will be birches, poplars, aspens, willow, and rowan trees. We call them pioneer species since they are normally the first to start growing in our temperate climate. It will take some time before the seedlings of the next generation of trees will start catching up in the ground under the canopy of the pioneer group. There will be beeches, oaks, and pines. A lot will depend on the particular location but also the climate. Frankly, we cannot predict what kind of climate our descendants will have in one hundred years. So I think it is irresponsible to plant anything as it may be a waste of money."

Ivana Marková | Photo: Archive of Ivana Marková

Obviously, the process of natural regeneration will take a long time. It will be decades before the area will be covered by a full–grown forest. Ivana Marková believes it is a process worth waiting for.

"The regeneration of the ecosystem is only just starting. In the wake of a natural disaster such as the wildfire we had here, the whole natural growth process has to re-start. Here there were some birches that are able to start growing from the roots of the burnt trees that remained in the ground and they will be probably be the first to start appearing. Then seeds of other pioneer plants will be spread by the wind since they are very light and some of them will start to sprout. When these trees shed their leaves that are rich in nutrients, they will naturally fertilize the earth and at the same time provide shade and moisture and thus help to prevent erosion and create the right conditions for the so-called target trees to start growing."

Photo: Daniela Pilařová,  Czech Radio

Her arguments seem logical and simple enough. But Tomáš Salov says that the National Park administration is under pressure from the locals to act. They would like to see a grown forest as soon as possible and urge planting it rather than waiting for its natural reforestation.

Tomáš Salov | Photo: Daniela Pilařová,  Czech Radio

"People here think that we should regenerate the forest, that we should plant as many trees as soon as possible. So, we have this difference of opinion with the local people, sometimes we even clash and argue with each other. When we tell them that there is no point in trying to artificially grow a forest, plant species that might not be ideally suited to the future climate conditions, they do not believe us. Some of them even think that we are simply lazy."

Some environmentalists suggest that the campaign for a speedy reforestation is driven by local business interests. Guesthouses, restaurants and other firms providing tourist services would like to see as many visitors again as soon as possible. They do not want to wait decades for new green, lush woods to emerge. But when I spoke to Milan Dařina, one of the critics of the National Park strategy, he denied that business had anything to do with his views.

"I am responsible for the forests owned by the village of Jetřichovice. I came here as a forester some four decades ago. This region and its landscape simply enchanted me and I never moved away."

Bohemian Switzerland a few months after the wildfire | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

Milan Dařina even accuses the experts at the National Park of environmental fundamentalism, which is, in his view, seriously misguided and inconsistent.

"They don’t want to help nature under any circumstances, they want to rely totally on natural regeneration. I agree that natural regeneration and biodiversity are a good thing and I think we could rely solely on them in some of the least accessible zones of the National Park. At the same time, I would like to know who will decide which are the native trees we should let grow and which are alien species. For example, we can be almost certain that after some time Douglas firs and Weymouth pines will start growing here. Those were introduced some 200 years ago and are definitely not native. The National Park has so far been trying to eradicate these species. So I would like to know whether they will start to eradicate them again or whether they will let them grow like other trees."

In order to get an impartial and expert view, I called Professor Pavel Kindlmann at Charles University in Prague who specializes in ecology and biodiversity. So, what does he think about natural reforestation?

Pavel Kindlmann | Photo: Ben Skála,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

"It is quite clear that when it comes to forests in national parks, we should let nature take its course. I am talking here about the inner main zones of the parks, not the buffer zones on the outside. We should let nature take its course as much as possible, that’s why we have those parks."

And what about forests outside of national parks? There is a chronic problem with their bad composition in Czechia. Ever since the industrial revolution, spruce was planted as a fast–growing tree used mainly for building and industrial purposes. Originally though, spruce grew in only colder countries or in higher altitudes. A warmer and drier climate makes it very vulnerable to bark beetle infestation. So, many forests all over the country had to be cut down and their owners are now obliged by law to replant them. Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to change their composition so that it would conform to the changing climate? Professor Pavel Kindlmann again:

Bohemian Switzerland a few months after the wildfire | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

"We certainly won’t make a mistake if we leave it up to nature, but the regeneration will take longer. The advantage is that we will not have to pay for anything or do anything and in due time the species best adapted for the given climactic conditions will be naturally selected. But at the same time I understand that if you want to have a forest for future logging, you need to plant trees that you want to sell or use, for example, spruce. Only in that case, you do not have a natural forest, but rather a wood plantation."

Professor Kindlmann says it is likely that, at the end of the day, the reforestation will probably be some sort of compromise. Some parts of the park will be left completely to nature, in others, people will replant the trees, hoping that they choose the right species well adapted to the future climate.

Illustrative photo: Jan Kopřiva,  Czech Radio