Wild nature and tourism

Are they combined in Belovezhskaya Pushcha?

Heorhi Kazulka, "Brestskiy Kurier" (The Brest Courier) newspaper, No 33, August 11, 2005

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Once upon a time a familiar local woman, not living far from my house, visited the Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a tourist. She wanted to see the residence of Grandfather Frost's, the Belarusian Santa Clause located ten kilometers from the administrative centre of the National Park. It is not a good thing that the residence is advertised all over the country more than a year, while the indigenous inhabitant of the Pushcha did not yet visits this new Belarusian miracle. In fact this woman had not been in the depths of Belovezhskaya Pushcha for a period of five years. In her daily life she was too busy with other things, but suddenly she felt pleasure to meet the forest, which she remembered very well from her childhood and youth, again.

However the woman felt little pleasure because she did not find the nice dense Belovezhskaya Pushcha which she was used to meet from the cradle.

"I cannot recognize the area", she said. "There is open space now on places where wood stood as a wall in the past. Open spots from fellings can be seen everywhere. There are only stumps instead of reserved beauty. There is no Belovezhskaya Pushcha, that fantastic wood of my childhood, anymore! They have cut it down!"

"This is because there is a perpetrator called Bark beetle", I answered her. "There were a lot of Spruce trees in the Pushcha. Bark beetles attacked these and they were lost. Therefore fellings are conducted to harvest wood "granted" by nature", I continued although I knew well that a reserved wood is not a field of a collective farm which brings crops of potato or beets to the man who sowed these vegetables in spring. Also dead wood belongs to nature in protected natural territories. If we take this away we "plunder" the future fertility of the soil and we remove actual houses of insects, birds, mushrooms, mosses and lichens, which use the dead wood as a home.

"I understand", she said though she was not familiar with the details of wildlife science. "My feeling does not accept this situation. I do not know what way is right, but to me fellings and stumps are not the way to solve this problem. You see, Belovezhskaya Pushcha simply vanishes with such terrible cuttings."

Please note, this woman, who is no expert in ecology, understands by feeling that something is going wrong!

I quoted this conversation as an example to show that the consciousness of the majority of the people regards Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a wild and fantastic wood, the wood of our childhood, where the grey wolf and the clumsy bear, Wood-Goblin and Baba-Yaga in izba on chicken foots live. Fellings, timber carrying vessels, saws and accurate artificial plantations do not match with the image of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as it exists in the minds of people in any way. This woman is not the only one in view of her representation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha as an ancient primeval reserved wood. Please ask any man on the street what Belovezhskaya Pushcha means to him. You will hear the same thing. I have heard it myself many times.

People working in art, for example artists, will tell you the same too. Once I found a children's badge in a shop. It depicted a bison with an old spruce forest on the background and a rising sun with the superscription "Belovezhskaya Pushcha Reserve". You see, an artist, a creative man, also perceives Belovezhskaya Pushcha as a reserve, not as a National Park and especially not as a timber enterprise.

What about foreigners? One of the last winters pupils from a school specialized in biology from Moscow visited the National Park. They asked me to tell about insects. I agreed to do so. At the end of my story I asked the guys how they imagined the Belovezhskaya Pushcha to be before their trip, what kind of Pushcha they saw and if their hopes were justified. I was amazed to hear a twenty year old boy answer "I have not seen Belovezhskaya Pushcha. I read a lot about it and imagined it to be an old and fantastic wood. We crossed the Pushcha all day with a bus. I looked around well, but I have not found the fairytale I read about. Logs and stumps are around everywhere. This cannot be Belovezhskaya Pushcha".

I read results of sociological researches on the opinion of foreign tourists, which were published in a Polish newspaper. The tourists had been asked for which reason they went to Belovezhskaya Pushcha. All of the tourists declared that they came to see the old and wild reserved wood which is absent in other parts of Europe.

More old guides from the nature museum of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park can confirm that our tourists already complained about the abundance of stumps along tourist routes and the limited presence of wild nature although it was before large scale clear cuttings started a few years ago. The visual problem is that decomposition of the stumps takes a few decades. So, when only single trees are felled within the protected forest, stumps appear to be visible everywhere on the forest floor in ten or twenty years. And therefore everyone understands that the present situation is horrible as almost the entire Belovezhskaya Pushcha faces creation of clear cutting areas.

Many more examples of this kind can be given. From every example at least one conclusion can be drawn: Belovezhskaya Pushcha does not fulfill its humanitarian task. Today the Pushcha is not like the wood which the majority of people imagine to see before their trip to the forest or how visitors experienced it in past time. This concerns both Belarusians and foreigners. Belovezhskaya Pushcha does not arouse feelings of patriotism and pride for the homeland of the citizens of Belarus. On the contrary, it melts the hope of people. This is because people witness that even in the most sacred reserved place of Belarus things are going wrong. The people want to see a surprising reserved wood, but instead of that they face specialized timber enterprises. The emotion of loss, experienced by many men who expected to enter an overwhelming natural woodland, cannot be covered by explanations about Bark beetles, hurricanes and fires. If a man is going to ski, he needs snow and mountains. If he is going to bathe, he needs sun and the sea. As if he is going to an amusement park, he needs roundabouts and ice cream. Man does not need explanations of employees about, for instance, the snow which just melt, the sun which hid itself, undelivered ice cream and a drunk attraction attendant.

Taking into account the above, the statement of Nickolai Bambiza, director of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, to continue large scale fellings and to harvest one million (!) cubic metres of wood affected by Bark beetle seems to be absolutely inappropriate. Mr Bambiza expressed these words at the meeting with experts of UNESCO in March of the last year (2004). When the director was asked what he is going to show foreigners he said, either for fun or in full seriousness, that "lunar" landscapes, shaped by the large scale fellings will be shown to foreign tourists as such areas fit in his vision on the situation. Perhaps it was a joke, but according to satirists, each joke consists partially of a true joke, which makes fun of the rest.

Mister director, foreign tourists do not need lunar landscapes and artificial plantations within the forest like you do! Tourists will spread words about this to the devil, together with terrifying stories about harmful Bark beetles and terrible hurricanes told by guides. Tourists will tell others not to visit the Pushcha. The common purpose of tourists to visit Belovezhskaya Pushcha is to look at its reserved forests. There is no attraction in seeing cleaned and managed woodlands which can be found all over Europe.

Don't you believe this? Let my give you an example to illustrate my words. I have a friend in Denmark. We met each other when the reserved nature was peacefully respected in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. He came several times. He was frantic about the beauty of the ancient wood. As an answer to my question why he does not take his friends he clarified "My friends are not yet ready to meet this Pushcha". In his opinion, we are too far from western civilization. Our service is poor. Guides serving tourists professionally in foreign languages are absent. There are many bureaucratic barriers and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest complex looks different as the way in which it is advertised. He is an expert and an ecologist. He understands such particularities. But others cannot understand it. It turns out that harm can be done in stead of gaining benefit: this kind of administration and management discredits the idea to reserve nature and to let the state advertise the idea of wild nature conservation.

That's it! In this case neither reconstruction in European style nor recreation of the area and improving work discipline will help as long as the Park does not employee ecological guides who speak foreign languages fluently and tell professionally about this reserved wood and its ecological problems. This structure is existing in the Polish part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha for tens of years. The firms and companies which operate the hotel and provide other services should also adopt the use of foreign languages. But little progress is being made up to today in this matter within the National Park, if, to say it correctly, any progress is being made at all. Moreover, not every manager understands this matter. What kind of progress can be made in protecting nature if the administration of the Park considers, I quote ". the Wilderness Protection zone (reserved wild nature, note of the author) not the most beautiful part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, because there are many trees which have tumbled down and much dead wood, for a part lost through activities of Bark beetle and because there are glades covered by grasses and turf"" ("Zvyazda" (The Star) newspaper, No 255, December 19, 2001).

Where is the way to get out of the deadlock where Belovezhskaya Pushcha finds itself? Fortunately that way exists. What should we do to leave the deadlock? I had the luck to visit the Bavaria Forest National Park in Germany in 2000 as a member of a Polish group. The trip was organized in the framework of the Danish project COWI. Like Belovezhskaya Pushcha the Bavarian Wood is being recognized as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The strictly reserved zone covers approximately one third of its area or about 10,000 hectares. Within this zone Spruce forests cover the soil in the mountain ranges of the area. The reserve got into trouble when Bark beetle attacked the local forests at the end of the 90's. As a result the forests in the strictly reserved zone had completely "fallen". All Spruce forests were lost completely because any action, including felling, is forbidden within the strictly reserved zone of the Bavarian Forest National Park. The area is owned by nature. This zone is provided to serve the purposes of preservation and the study of wild nature and natural processes.

A grandiose public scandal has risen in Germany and abroad and even protest meetings were organized. The press sank scientists and nature conservators. How could they allow the loss of so much wood, moreover in such a famous reserve? In spite of the character of this question these scientists and nature conservators should be honored. They did not only withstand the powerful pressure of the public, they did not just "survive" under the conditions of an unequal fight, but they won the battle. How? In a very professional way and, what is more important, avoiding superfluous emotions and noise, using the methodology of ecological education and by involving the public. Ordinary people are known to possess similar notions about reserved wild nature everywhere. Green wood is regarded as good, while dead wood is considered bad. It must be noted that this "knowledge" was generated to a great extent through a practice of several centuries of forest management. Therefore ecologists had actually taught the public anew. They explained that the life of wood does not end after the death of old trees, because a new forest generation replaces them. The dead trees become the home of hundreds of species of animals, plants and mushrooms, which can live only in this specific environment. On the whole, trees decay and are transferred into humus. This increases the strength of the new, young forest. It is interesting to notice that the ecologists did not only spread this information in press and at lectures, but also by personal communication with the people who visited the reserved natural wood.

I was a member of the "public" Polish group. Mister Wolfgang Bauml, the director of the nature museum of the National Park and World Biosphere Reserve, guided the excursion in the forest personally. On the first site we visited a small ecological path lead 200 or 300 meters into. the strictly reserved zone, the sacred sanctity of the reserve. It was not just a path, but one made of wood. Yes, it was wooden! It was a wooden floor, a suspension bridge, with a width of two to three boards with handrails lifted up half a meter above the ground surface by pears. Believe me, even me, the ecologist who saw many surprises, got a fantastic impression of the reserve. I was not walking, because I was floating. It was even more like I was flying above the surface of the strictly reserved zone. I entered the area, but I would not break the wild nature of the area. I became a part of it. I was one with the reserve. The flooring followed the micro relief of the terrain. If a stream was ahead, the flooring went down like a stair and I found myself near the water. If a fallen tree was ahead, the flooring-stair went up and then down, smoothly bending around a tree from above. The path extended 50 meters deep into the strictly reserved zone and then bended back like a loop. It was very easy to use and simultaneously effective.

Naturally, we got instructions about things allowed and forbidden before we started the excursion. Even leaves and grasses are under protection in the strictly reserved zone and don't think of leaving rubbish. Many people visit this site and if everyone broke off one leaf or throws away a piece of paper, we could easily estimate the kind of transformation this path would face in couple of months. Other people also want to enjoy and touch the spirit of the reserved wood.

So we are started our way. The first stop was 30 meters on. A small platform was made here to gather all visitors. Mixed wood surrounded us. Single Spruce trees in the age of 200 to 300 years old were lost here because of Bark beetle activities. Our guide, who already explained us the idea of this zone and this path, began a story about the wood. He spoke in English. Please notice, the beginning of the story was not about being fair to the awful Bark beetle, as our guides in Belovezhskaya Pushcha are used to tell, but about the Earth and about wild nature. It was about natural processes and the laws of wild nature. It was about life and death in the wood as an integrated cycle of living nature. After this introduction the guide changed the topic and told about the problem with Bark beetle. He considered the bug as one of the inhabitants of the wood, which, like other insects and organisms has a specific ecological function. Bark beetle, as he told feeds itself with bark of perishing Spruce trees. The guide told about the kind of living organisms which occupy trees after they die and what goes on further in the wood as a part of the endless natural cycle.

After our questions were answered to our satisfaction, we continued the trip. The next stop was soon, on a place where the wood was completely alive. We attended a professional and deep philosophical lecture about the life of the wood again. The excursion ended in the place where it had started. We left the strictly reserved zone. Everybody was greatly impressed in being truly involved into nature and its problems. One of us was keeping silence and pondered the scene, someone else expressed his feelings to a fellow. Nobody posed any questions. Everything was clear to the visitors, even to those who were initially considered to fight Bark beetle uncompromisingly as a main enemy of mankind or at least that part of the society which depends on woodland for its survival.

What was the reason of this striking change? These were two things: a professional and skilled guide who knew and liked his business and the fact that the wild natural area where this guide "filled" us with his knowledge simultaneously confirmed the things he said. The things we were told could be seen directly in the natural forest.

By the way, this is an argument for those who consider the strictly reserved zone as an "fortress", inaccessible to tourists. This example evidently proved that even deep-rooted skeptics can change their opinion and look in another way when they are surrounded by the wild nature, the subject they discuss. Theoretical lectures in auditoria cannot replace excursions of one single hour, like the one in the Bavarian Wood. Regarding education of anthropogenic influence and damage inflicted to the strictly reserved zone we depend first of all on guides and their skills to lead excursions. Practice shows that the small damage made to reserved sites through excursions is paid back with a huge benefit for the whole strictly reserved zone and its wild nature. Having visited a truly natural site like the Bavarian Wood, people are able to understand wild nature better and they will treat nature more carefully everywhere. As a result everybody wins; both man and nature.

After a short lunch we went to another place. A three kilometer long ecological path was lying ahead, which again lead through the reserved zone. The route was situated on a small mountain to make it possible to see the beauty landscapes of the reserved National Park from above. Germans consider this as an appropriate way to compensate recreational damage brought to wild nature tourists who walk in the area, because the visitors are taught ecological facts on their way. We were starting our way up the mountain. The path was of two to three meters wide. It was clear that many people used this path to walk. We were explained that this is one of the main tourist routes. The mixed wood gradually changed to pure Spruce forest as we reached higher levels. Let me note that the forest was dead. The guide explained the peculiarities and character of the outbreak of Bark beetle. He put our attention to single living Spruces which survived this "Bark beetle hell". The survivors were not numerous. One or two trees were living for every hundred lost ones. He said that even the scientists do not know why trees were not "tasty" for Bark beetle. Probably they have a unique gene fund and they contain a substance which frightens off the bug. It is very important to save these threes, because they are a part of evolution and they can produce Spruces which are genetically resistant to Bark beetle.

At one moment I could not resist the temptation to lift up some pieces of bark from a trunk of a Spruce tree which lay on the forest floor. It was very interesting to me to explore the species of beetles which dwell dead Spruce trees in Germany, located so far from my house. Therefore I wanted to take away some bark for my collection. A remark from the guide followed immediately. If each tourist takes one piece of bark it results in quick transformation of a site of wild nature. It would turn it into something completely different. But he restricted himself to an oral caution as he was informed I am an expert on insects. Nonetheless he said that people who infringe the laws of strict nature protection are sometimes imposed a fine, even in such cases.

After we spent some time to admire the beauties of the Bavarian Wood from the top of the small mountain we went down. We were granted a couple of surprises again. Our guide explained the basic reason for the scandal risen in Germany when the living wood was lost. The public was afraid there would be no forest anymore because woods in high mountains are composed exclusively of pure Spruce stands. However, such fears are not justified. Spruces produce a huge crop of cones and seeds in the last year of their life and they drop them when they perish. Then seeds sprout to generate the new forest. Some people of our group doubted this. The guide invited us to pass one more flooring path. Again we went some tens of meters into the strictly reserved zone. He accompanied us to an area with dense grass cover. He proposed people with doubts to kneel and to look carefully between the grasses. They found seedlings of Spruce. The seedling turned out to be extremely numerous.

"The first two years after the seeds fell and sprouted were the most difficult" our guide explained. "Everybody thought that there would be no wood her anymore. Therefore the public protested our reserved policy. But when seedlings finally appeared we won the discussion. To win the support of all people in doubt, people like you, it was necessary to drive into the wood and to show how regeneration of the forest is going on. A few years have gone by. We do not have any opponents anymore today. Almost all of them who used to be became our friends. In truth it was hardly necessary to do any work and we are pleased with the result. Let us say that we managed to generate a new ideology of the attitude of people towards wild nature. People know and understand the ways of nature better now. We consider this our common victory."

Artificially broken "wind fallen" trees were the last surprise we were shown. It is known that a dead spruce tree stands five to eight years. Then it falls because of the quick decay at the lower part of the trunk. This means that there can be a real threat for tourists who walk near dead Spruce trees. The German managers found an original way to avoid this threat. They cut all Spruce trees, which were located so close to the path that they would be dangerous for tourists if they would fall down. There were cut down at a height of three to four meters within three years after the outbreak of Bark beetle. It is very interesting that they did not use a chainsaw. They adopted a special mechanism, which we could call "trunk breaker", which gives the effect of a (naturally) broken trunk instead of a plane surface on a stump. As a result, the scene looked very much like if a hurricane had passed through the forest and broke down trees. In this way human intervention was again harmoniously inserted into the natural processes.

In the Bavarian Wood we were demonstrated an excellent example of the way in which ecological tourism and ecological education should be developed. If the guides provide the tourists ecological education, instead of only amusing and entertaining them, positive effect can be achieved on the scale of the entire nation. To reach this higher goal a National Park or World Biosphere Reserve should bring over the ideology the preserve of wild nature and propagandize it in every possible way. It is also of primary importance to teach skilled professional guides and to use modern programs and techniques. There is a natural necessity to employ professional teachers for this purpose.

In regards to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha the grounds to mention this are weak, because lack of professionalism has became the general policy of the National Park over the last years. For example, how is it possible to explain in another way that people who work in the nature museum over the last six or so years are in the age of retirement. These people are unable to guide a professional excursion to visitors of the museum, as they are not acquainted to ecology and to the business of running a museum, because they are not specialists. On the other hand they compensate their lack of professionalism by "devotion" and by complete obedience to their heads. What is going on here? The answer is very easy. The current leaders of the National Park do not need or even want to employ professional workers because this would make their own professional problems visible as a log in the eye, on the background of the professionalism of the ecological experts which should be employed. However, as soon as large groups of foreign groups will visit Belovezhskaya Pushcha through a state border post in the heart of the forest, with less strict criteria for entrance to Belarus, which is already being existed but there are no many tourist group till now , this "log" will become visible at once for entire Europe. Professionals from the Polish part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha will open up the facts. Do the leaders of the Pushcha thinking about this? Or are they having no time to analyze this problem because of the huge volumes of fellings which are going on now and because of the business of processing of timber?

Heorhi Kazulka
Philosophy Doctor of Biology
Kamenyuki village, Belovezhskaya Pushcha

*(The article was published in a some short-cut format. Because some of sentences are of important meaning or put additional important arguments, it was decided to place the entire original text of this article at the website. Parts absent in the newspaper are marked with the italic font. - Note of the BP-21 editor. )