New Šumava National Park head raises eyebrows with plans to downgrade conservation status

The Šumava National park is one of the Czech Republic’s indisputable natural treasures. A vast 100km long stretch of forest running along the south-western border of the country, the area has been protected since the early 1960s and a nature reserve has existed within this zone since 1991. But, the reserve’s new head Jiří Mánek has announced controversial plans to weaken environmental protection there.

The Šumava National Park has been battling with the devastating effects of bark beetles for decades. The manner in which this battle is waged, namely to simply chop down thousands of trees in an affected area, has also been the subject of considerable debate and even protests. All the more so as the tree-killing infestations have yet to be properly eliminated despite the highly contentious efforts. But eyebrows were raised when newly appointed park director Jiří Mánek recently proposed reducing the park’s protected status levels in order to make it easier to manage the park, including the felling of trees infected with the insect pests. The move would lower the ranking of the park from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Category II listing – meaning an explicitly stated “national park” to a Category IV. This lower ranking is listed as a “Habitat/Species Management Area” in which “regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats” are required.

Jiří Mánek,  photo: Hugo Charvát,  Ekolist,  Creative Commons 3.0
In a recent interview with Czech Radio, Mánek reaffirmed his commitment to tackling the bark beetle issue:

“The important thing is that I will be continuing existing policy in such a manner that within the space of a year or year and a half, the bark beetle issue will be resolved. I’ll only remind listeners that in the southern part of Šumava national park, meaning from Kvilda to Lipno, we may be able to end the so-called ‘state of emergency’ as the problems with the bark beetle have been practically eliminated there. In the northern part, the problem will be resolved, as I said, within a year or year and a half.”

Jan Stráský,  photo: Hugo Charvát,  Ekolist,  Creative Commons 3.0
Mánek replaces Šumava park director Jan Stráský – both are members of the governing Civic Democrats but deny that political affiliations have or will affect their work. Stráský was loathed by many Czech environmentalists for his pro-logging and also pro-chemicals approach towards tackling the bark beetle. His replacement has defended the new proposals to lower the park’s protection level as of this autumn, arguing that no documents exist at the Ministry of the Interior mandating that Šumava must be a Category II park. But concerns and suspicions abound and worries over the direction of the park have been a semi-regular occurrence in the Czech Republic for years. In March, the IUCN raised alarm bells over proposed legislation supported by Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa to re-zone the park and open it up for development and logging. The global environmental organization warned back then that Šumava could be downgraded if the legislation went through. Now it seems, the park’s management has chosen to do this all by itself – meaning that Šumava could still be called a “national park”, but effectively be so only in name.

Vojtěch Kotecký is a campaign director for the Czech environmental organization Hnutí Duha. His organization is unimpressed with the appointment of Mánek:

“We believe that Mr. Mánek’s appointment is essentially a repeat mistake by the Ministry of the Environment. He will be a continuation of the previous management of the national park, which has led to huge criticisms from scientists and from those who love the nature at the Šumava national park and who believe that opening the park to large scale logging, tree cutting and large-scale recreational projects would be a mistake.”

Kotecký is also critical of efforts to eradicate the bark beetle from Šumava, arguing that the felling of trees does more harm than good.

“The Minister of the Environment and the current management of the national park claim that their actions are designed to defend the national park from the bark beetle, but the historical evidence of the last ten or fifteen years shows that exactly the places where logging took part led to the largest spread of the populations of the bark beetle and the further devastation of forests. What we need to do is leave the parks and let nature take its course, just as they do in other national parks in Europe with successful results in the last several decades.”