The Youth of the Ancient Forest

Tatiana Dobysh, "Belorusskaya Lesnaya Gazeta" (The Belarusian Forest Newspaper) newspaper, No 26, June 25, 2009

According to a legend based on a historical fact, it was the year 1409 that saw the Belovezhskaya Pushcha becomes a nature reserve. In the distant 1409, the Polish King Yagiello and his cousin, the great Lithuanian Duke Vytautas, escorted by some of their best warriors, spent eight days hunting in the forest. They were stocking up victuals in preparation for a long march on crusaders that would climax in the Battle of Grunwald. After the joint hunt, Yagiello issued an edict that forbade anyone but himself and Vytautas from hunting large animals in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The local inhabitants were allowed to kill small game and birds to sustain themselves. The event served as the starting point in the acquisition of its special status by the Pushcha.

Centuries passed. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha saw and survived much during this time. Over the 600 years of its nature reserve history, it came under the jurisdiction of seven states, and control over the forest passed from state to state as many as fourteen times. It took centuries for man to realize just how fragile Earth’s nature was. Even after the 600 years, the history of the forest reserve goes on. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park was included by UNESCO on the World Heritage List for its well-preserved unique wildlife in 1992. It was the first nature reserve in the former Soviet Union to be included on the list. In 1993, it was designated by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. The national park was awarded a Council of Europe diploma in 1997 as one of the model nature protection establishments on Earth.

The national park’s central estate, the village of Kamenyuki, is effectively going through a revival. Builders are repairing the roofs of the houses, laying pavement tiles, constructing a bridge across the Lesnaya River and adding final touches to an administrative and environmental center. The green and blossoming Belovezhskaya Pushcha, with its fairy-tale-like father Frost’s Estate, inspires delight and a feeling that this indeed is our motherland. The presidential property management department is investing considerable funds to ensure that the park develops and keeps confidence in its future. As much as 26 billion rubles (roughly $9 million) was invested in landscaping operations in the Pushcha last year alone.

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is the pride of Belarus. This is not just rhetoric, says Lyudmila Grechanik, who manages the national park museum. “Europe does not have any woodlands preserved this well any more. You can never have enough of the air here, you could drink it. We are doing all we can to stay up to the world standard, not just the European standard. Our Pushcha is a biosphere reserve. The researchers in the national park are participating in the worldwide activities monitoring changes in nature. The main goal, though, is to study and preserve the biological diversity in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. And certainly everything possible is done to show the wildlife to visitors, while keeping it as safe as possible.”

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is offering visitors more services each new tourist season. A tour titled, “Visiting Father Frost” has topped the national park’s popularity chart so far. It remains a relevant offer both in winter and in summer, popular with both children and grown-ups. The Father Frost’s home received its two hundred thousandth visitor this past December, a young girl from Stolin District. She was presented with a television. The staff is expecting the five hundred thousandth visitor this year.

The 50 kilometer sightseeing tour of the forest is equally popular with both Belarusian visitors and foreign tourists. The 120 kilometer-long Yazvinskaya Oak-grove route has been in operation for over a year. Visitors can walk along the “environmental path” to the north of the forest to look at the home of Count Tyszkiewicz who fell out of favor for his part in the 1830 uprising. The building, noteworthy for having once been Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s intended residence, is now a boarding house.

Recent years have seen growing interest in bicycle and hiking tours. In response to this new demand, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha researchers have devised five brand-new tour routes which can be used both by cyclists and pedestrians. Each route provides a view of the surrounding scenery that is remarkably different from the rest. Each route is closed, so that the visitors do not have to return using the same road.

Quality boarding houses located in the forest are at visitors’ service. A hotel currently under construction in Kamenyuki is designed as a health center providing affordable services to children. Tourist services in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha are payable in advance by bank transfer or upon arrival. Comfortable transport is available. What can be better for a holiday stay than clean air, centuries-old trees, birdsongs and a delicious lunch? The national park has old scientific traditions. Research has continued here for more than 200 years.

“It is the Pushcha, as a world heritage site, as a biosphere reserve, that should be the center for environmental expertise and environmentally friendly methods of managing the neighboring territories,” says Vasily Arnolbik, deputy director for research. “The core of the reserve is the untouched part of the Pushcha where visitors are not allowed. A buffer zone shields the core which enjoys favorable conditions, primarily to ensure that wildlife there is developing in a natural manner. The protected area has no boundaries within the reserve structure. This is an area where we must pursue a policy aimed at sustainable nature management. The staff of the research department at the national park are currently working on several projects, one of these being a nature chronicle. That key document, which has now been updated for 40 years, has reflected every process and phenomenon recorded in the Pushcha.

A second project is structural-functional analysis of the national park’s ecosystems to design steps to preserve biodiversity and monitor the natural environment. The scientists have been studying animals, estimating their populations and tracing the forest renewal process. If the Pushcha is to have a future, new growth replacing the old trees must help in preserving the longevity of the forest’s unique appearance. Another important part of the research department’s operations is participation in preparing new materials on the World Heritage.

The department’s staff are working with the Belarusian State Technological University to study the economics of Pushcha management. This year, researchers will focus on estimating the economic effect of tourism in the Pushcha.

The management has very serious plans to develop agriculture in the national park. A new agricultural facility was established in the area formerly occupied by the Bolshevik collective farm after new land was added to the Pushcha in 2004. Agricultural equipment was purchased and an animal farm, now accommodating around 170 cows, went through an upgrade. The management believe the national park has every possibility to convert up to 4 000 hectares to farmland and obtain high output. The agricultural operations should yield hefty profits, adding to the returns from the park’s tourist infrastructure.

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is entering a higher phase of development and formation as it prepares to celebrate its 600th birthday. It can be said with confidence that now is the beginning of this ancient forest’s modern history.

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