Tourist complex and the destruction of ancient traditions of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, 2001 - 2003

Events, facts, documents and evidences: After Nickolai Bambiza was nominated as general director of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in 2001 the announcement was made that practically everything related to the tourist infrastructure of the park would be subject for improvement and reconstruction. This was a very welcome decision since so far many problems within the park were related to the deficit of means of finance for the development of the tourist industry and with the improvement of the tourist service and the tourist base of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and Kamenyuki, the tourist center of the forest. Similar ideas had repeatedly been spoken of, but lack or absence of money needed for concrete programs for the tourist infrastructure hindered implementation of these ideas and plans. Nevertheless, the current administration did not develop any integrative, perspective and scientifically supported program for true development of the tourist sphere in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. All decisions related to changes in the tourist facilities have been made in an atmosphere of secrecy; open discussions with broad involvement did not take place.

In short time grandiose works on reconstruction on virtually all elements of the tourist infrastructure of the National Park were initiated. This was possible thanks to the fact that the head office had assigned huge sums of money for this purpose. The portfolio available was huge to the point that in previous years society could only have dreamed about such sums. As an example the Ministry of Finance in Belarus allocated 774,000,000 Roubles - equivalent of approximately 600,000 US $ - from the state budget in order to overhaul "Viskuly", the main building of the governmental dacha ("The Information Exchange" Newspaper, ¹178. June 13 2001). A considerable further financing for the overhaul of hotels and a restaurant was supplied.

The administration made basic efforts to reconstruct the administrative center of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. This center includes the administrative building of the National Park, a nature museum, hotels, a restaurant, a trade site, the entrance post of the National Park and other, smaller, tourist objects.

The first activity for improvement of the tourist facilities turned out to be cutting down 15 living trees, which were growing close to the trade site at the entrance of the National Park. The trees were felled June 2001. It was done in deficit of obtaining the due substantiation and in violation of existing legislation (see section "Cutting of the living forest near a trade site at the entrance of the National Park"). Ostensibly, these trees were growing just right of the entrance, the "Pines" trade site of the National Park. In fact, the trade site was clearly visible, but none of the former directors, the highest responsible for management of the park, had ever crossed his mind to fell these living trees.

Following the felling, construction of a new trade site called the "Wood fairy tale" pavilion. For the sake of objectivity it should be noted that the building represents a typical example of the beautiful local architecture, which is based on maximal application of wood. No sooner than this pavilion was completed reconstruction of the "Pines" pavilion took place.

These pictures show the current appearance of the "Wood fairy tale" pavilion (picture 1) and the "Pines" pavilion (picture 2).

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, October 19, 2003)

Simultaneously work was made of building fences across the entire territory of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, which we could call «fantastic». First bulky wooden fences were made around the enclosures of the educational zoo, which shows tourists all large native wild animals of the forest. This fence cut off a forest road within the forest and a footpath along the existing enclosures for a distance of over one kilometer. Previously both the road and the footpath were located outside of the fenced area of the zoo. More fences have been build near the entrance of the enclosure, on which a small house to install a cashier was set up as well. The cashier requires any visitors to pay a small sum of money to visit the enclosures.

The long fence around the enclosures, the new entrance of the zoo and the cashier building are shown here (pictures 3, 4, 5).

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( At the administrative centre of the National Park, the enclosures, October 19, 2003)

In the opinion of the administration this measure was taken in order to raise the revenues from tourists who visit the National Park. However, according to the opinion of economists the benefit of this reorganization would be doubtful. Tickets for visitors used to be sold at a cash in the nature museum, combined with access to the museum itself. Any tourist who bought a ticket to visit the nature museum received tickets for visiting the enclosures as well. Understandably the local inhabitants rarely visited the museum, but some number of them used to walk along the path which passed by the enclosures. In short the administration expected that constructing a huge fence and employing several cashiers, which need to receive their salary, would be compensated by additional income obtained from local inhabitants. This has certainly appeared to be an illusion. Local inhabitants just overcame walking besides the enclosures or visiting the newly fenced zoo through the official entrance. however they began to enter the fenced area somewhere at the backside of the zoo.

According to conclusion of the experts, in constructing objects of wood of high quality was used both for poles and boards in order to construct the fence. The total volume amounted to over 40 cubic meters, which would have been enough to build two wooden houses for the benefit of workers of the National Park. This illustration is outlined since housing of the employees is a problem as the number of buildings in Belovezhskaya Pushcha is very limited. Since the fence was set up, the wood of the fence has turned black and within a short period it will lose its appealing, aesthetic view. In order to restore and maintain the fence additional charges will be necessary in the near future; so the fence can be painted or replaced.

The most interesting on the subject of the fence around the zoo is the fact that the administration of the National Park employed a brigade of Ukrainian citizens for constructing it. The same brigade had shortly before built a canopy above the wood-processing-workshop within one month, for which each of these people earned 700 to 800 US $. While, for example, the salary of employees of the National Park amounts to less than one hundred Dollars (Elena Tribuleva "I understand your centuries' sorrow", "The Evening Brest" Newspaper, November 21, 2001). Currently dismissed economists of the National Park asserted that the payment was made, while relevant payroll documents lacked. Therefore it is clear that someone had put a part of the money involved into his / her own pocket (Irina Burnosenko "Last sigh of the Pushcha", "The Day" Newspaper, ¹98, December 4, 2001).

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(At the administrative centre of the national park, the fences of the enclosures of the zoo, broken down by the big hurricane, July 2002)

In 2002 works on removal of the old fence near museum and hotel complex were started. Simultaneously a "living" arch of wild grape, an ornamental, was removed. It did not come to the mind of the newly installed management that the old, decorated, fence represented a uniform architectural ensemble with the museum and hotel complex, which had all been built in 1960. This is surprising, since apart from preservation of biological diversity, the National Park aims to preserve the cultural heritage as well.

These pictures illustrate the recent destruction of the existing fence, which was regarded old an improper by the management, and the construction of a new board fence on a stony base and with stony poles (pictures 7 and 8). In the opinion of experts the esthetic superiority of this new fence in relation to the removed old one can be doubted. Currently, 1.5 years later, the yellowish boards of the new fence have started to turn dark and it will need to be repaired in the near future.

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, June 30, 2002)

Not only did the administration of the National Park replace the existing fence enclosing the tourist complex, it constructed another fence as well. This so-called "stone wall" is an extension in length of the previous fence line, located at the entrance of the building of the administrative office (picture 9).

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, October 19 2003)

Simultaneously the new managers initiated construction of concrete fences around the village of Kamenyuki (picture 10). However, similar types of construction had never been realized before in the village, while the name Kamenyuki - a kind of transcription of the word "stone" - has nothing in common with stony fences. Also in other villages within Belovezhskaya Pushcha the construction of fences was started.

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, October 27, 2003)

Decorations, attached to two very old trunk-trees, located on the territory of the administrative center of the National Park, were completely demolished and removed in 2002. They should have better been renewed. These two trees were "growing" near a gate of the public entrance check-post, symbolizing the old Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest. They were decorated with groove in shape of animals and birds. The trees and their decorations were replaced with a huge decorative colonnade and a signboard "National Park Belovezhskaya Pushcha on top of it. People claim that a similar presentation was made in Pripyatski National Park, located in an entirely different part of Belarus. So, the new managers did not just demolish the existing living wooden monument of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a visiting-card which had served many generations of tourists, but they toned down the specific character of the forest by adopting a view similar to that of another National Park at the entrance.

Pictures 11, 12 and 13 depict the image of the entrance of the National Park as it has been over many decades.

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, the entrance, 11, 12 - photo from archive, 13 - photo from the Internet)

.while the current view on the entrance of the National Park is depicted on photo 14. The monumental wooden arch probably symbolizes the dynamic mania which characterizes the appeal and activities in Belovezhskaya Pushcha over the last decade.

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, the entrance, October 19, 2003)

At the entrance of the National Park a clear cutting of living alders has been carried out during autumn 2002 (see section "Felling of living alder forest of old age"). The felling was targeted at expanding the public car parking area, although neither the number of tourists who visit the National Park is appreciably growing over recent years, nor has a boom in the number of tourists to Belovezhskaya Pushcha been calculated. The absence of serious need to expand the parking place onto the former stand of Alder is illustrated also by the fact that 1.5 years after the work on enlarging the parking it has still not been realized so far. The stumps of the felled trees were removed after half a year after the cutting - an attractive view for visitors of protected forest. In the summer of 2003 the stumps were grubbed up and sand was spread on the former site of Alder. Further works have not been carried out (picture 15).

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, the entrance, October 19, 2003)

Beside the central road behind the entrance check-post towards the office building of the National Park alien trees, Thuja and Juniper (an alien species in Belovezhskaya Pushcha) were planted in spring 2003. Ironically the trees were confiscated at the state border by structures related to the National Park, as the management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha had officially been engaged in border control and confiscating goods (picture 16). In previous decades visitors of Belovezhskaya Pushcha at once faced the wild, primary wood. This was very important, since it gave tourists an (overwhelming) impression of the view of genuine, natural forest in Belarus. Within a few years the Thujas will reach great dimensions and so tourists will admire decorative plantings, which belong to cultivated settings and which are at hand in uncountable quantities in all cities and villages all over the country - while these eco-tourists should obviously be impressed by the natural sensation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest.

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(At the administrative centre of the National Park, October 19, 2003)

A complete reconstruction of the hotels and the restaurant, close to the administrative center of the National Park, was carried out in 2002 and 2003. Once again, nothing remained of the traditional design and the interior. To the pleasure of most tourists, including foreign visitors, the original design of these buildings was genuine and characteristic, which pleased them. Nonetheless the new administration completely destroyed the design of buildings and it replaced it with design of a wide spread European standard and with entirely new scenery and decorations.

Currently the office building of the National Park is being overhauled and reconstructed in order to open a new hotel in it. Besides this already former office building a site of forest of old age was cut. Construction of a swimming pool is planned there. The management and the scientific staff of the National Park have been moved from their building to the premises of the industrial area of the wood-processing-workshop and into garages. The employees of the research staff have been compelled to leave their «native» office, which was constructed especially for scientific research in the middle of the 1970's. Their new «workshop» is situated far from the protected forest, which surrounded their office desks for over fifty years. In recent years there had been plans to build advanced laboratories for the benefit of the scientific department. Another project was to open an ecological education center in the administrative center on the third floor, which was constructed a few years ago. Obviously the management of Belovezhskaya Pushcha has given its priorities a radically different character.

The bank site at the lake of Lyadskoe was reconstructed in 2002 and 2003. This place had served as a small tourist complex before. It consisted of two inhabited houses, one of them called "Masherov's house", a sauna and a pond for fishing. Apart from the facts that small decorative fences and a summer house had been built, the paths were «improved» with hard cover, the area was upgraded in other ways and one more motel to accommodate high-ranked, rich people was constructed there.

These photos show the original view on the bank site; with its sauna (picture 17), the "Masherove's house" (picture 18) and benches along the pond (picture 19). These objects had been fit into the setting of Belovezhskaya Pushcha - a genuine harmony with the surrounding wild natural forest was felt by the visitors.

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(Compartment 680, October 27, 2000, photo by V. Ezhelov)

The current situation on the same area after it was reconstructed; the hard cover and interrogation with the surrounding, protected forest is giving the site its «appropriate view» (picture 20).

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(Compartment, May 31, 2003)

Striking changes have been executed beside tourist routes within Belovezhskaya Pushcha. This will be illustrated by the case of the type of «care» that was paid to the most famous tourist attraction - the king's oak, aged 550 years. This tree grows in the area of the nursery of European bisons (compartment 680). As a rule both groups of tourists as well as delegations and guests of Belovezhskaya Pushcha visit this site.

This is how the oak, a giant, looked some years ago. On the site tourists could admire the mighty tree in a perfectly preserved tract of old-age forest of which the king's oak was an integrated part (pictures 21, 22, 23, 24).

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(Compartment 680, picture 21 - photo by V. Ezhelov, 2000; pictures 22, 23 and 24 - photo by Aart Verkaik, the Netherlands, May 19, 2001)

The popularity of this giant oak is illustrated by the yearly number of 10,000's of people who came to see it yearly. Every visitor wanted to be photographed at the foot of this proud giant of the forest. Many people tried to check up how many men were needed to clasp the huge tree all around. Someone even tried to take a physic memory of the tree by tearing off a slice of its bark, which of course damaged the living giant. Because of its popularity the surface was trampled down all around the tree, leading to a hardened soil. Ultimately this was bad for the air supply to the roots of the tree, which could shorten its natural lifespan. In order to prevent further negative effects a small fence was set up around the oak in 2000. Still, this was a rather weak barrier for the most «fanatic» tourists.

This picture shows that tourists have climbed over the small fence. They clasped the giant oak by their hands to make an even more interesting scene for photography (picture 25).

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(Compartment 680, photo by V. Ezhelov , 2000)

In order to protect the tree better against the damage made by irresponsible tourists on its precious grounds thoughts had risen to fill the open spaces in the small fence with thick, finely forked branches. This would give the fence an aesthetic and architectural look as well. The Polish colleagues had protected their most delicate giants of the forest in that way in due time, many years before.

But before this could be done director Nickolai Bambiza had already fired many expert from the National Park. So, probably as a consequence of lack of qualified staff it was thought out that the best method for protection would be to fill the entire area within the fence by branches and blocks of trunks, all around the oak. When this idea was brought in practice many wood-cut remnants were used for it.

These pictures present the «aesthetic» look of the giant oak after the «protective measures» against the impact of tourists had been carried out (pictures 26, 27 and 28). In fact the heaps of brushwood and blocks of wood, surrounding the most popular tourist attraction, outlines adequately which standards the current administration of the National Park apply for cultural and aesthetic aspects of the forests' management. In half a year many diplomats, governmental delegations from various countries, groups of foreign tourists and many other important people came to see, or were shown, the heap of brushwood in which the old oak was packed. The employees of the National Park who guided groups to this «cultural absurdity» actually gave an appropriate image of the state of the Republic of Belarus. It is probably thanks to the mercy of God that none of the tourists has thrown a burning match or cigarette into the heap of brushwood. If it had happened the instantaneously arisen flames would destroy the huge tree within some hours, no matter that it had lived through centuries, no matter that it sprouted in the late Middle ages!

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(Compartment 680, June 10, 2002)

This disgracing, ugly package around the stem of Belovezhskaya Pushcha's most admired giant oak could have lasted long. But in 2002 a visit of the former Russian President Boris Elcin to the Republic of Belarus would take place, including a rest in Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Tamara Timborovskaya "Eltzin goes to Viskily", "Respublika" Newspaper, ¹135, June 21, 2002). Shortly before the arrival of Elcin people from Minsk, responsible for his visit to Belarus, came to the forest and they have apparently spoken negative words about a lack in aesthetic quality of the measures executed by the administration of the National Park. Literally a few days before the arrival of the VIP's the heap of brushwood disappeared as well as the fence around the oak. From that moment tourists once again had the opportunity to freely access the ground at the direct foot of the giant, precious tree.

Over the last two years the well varied tract of forest in which the oak grows has changed considerably. The strong hurricane which passed through Belovezhskaya Pushcha completely destroyed the forest over an area of 180 hectares. The storm raged along the oak, but it remained to be standing as strong, fierce and proud as ever, although the wind had broken off tow large branches from its top. But actually it was not just the wind which caused this damage; measures connected to fighting Bark beetle have influenced the impact of the storm badly. Foresters were compelled to cut lost Spruces and to bring that wood to the wood-processing-workshop. Otherwise, according to the administration of the National Park, the infected trees would be a «life-threatening danger» for tourists, since the Spruces may fell down. For that reasons the forest which surrounds the giant oak was strongly thinned out, while a little more «visionary» foresters would not do so in order to preserve the precious environment of the beloved and praised oak.

The area around the king's oak as it looks today (picture 29).

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(Compartment 680, May 31, 2003)

In the following paragraphs an outline will be given to the current culture on conduction fellings on areas close to tourist routes, or more exactly, the absence of a sane culture or attitude. Facts demonstrate how ugly and of low-culture the felling of trees is taken care of, even in the area surrounding that favourite tree of the visitors - the 550 year old king's oak. It still leaves undefined the character of the character of the intervention made in forest areas in the depth of the wood; we leave that to the imagination of every individual, however it is disgracing.

These pictures show the huge stumps which remained of spruces infected by bark beetle in the age class of 150 to 180 years, after they had been felled. They grew in the tract of forest in which the giant oak stands (pictures 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34). Apparently the management had not considered it wise to cut the trees at the ground level, in which way the interrogation in the forest ecosystem would not have been so apparent for tourists - the impression of a unique, preserved forest would have been kept much better. Close to these stumps heaps of wood-cut remnants were burned. Because of that large black stains appeared on the burned ground, while a lot of wood did not burn! It would have been much better to cover the stains with soil, but nobody thought of that idea. Scattered around the old oak fire wood, a product provided by the cut spruces, is lying as well as heaps of wood-cut remnants which were thrown on some spots in the careless manner in which the woodcutters worked or had to work following guidelines of the administration. Tourists who come to see our giant oak nowadays cannot be impressed deeply anymore, since their contact with majestic, primeval nature is annoyed by unpleasant feelings caused by the view on stumps and logs which are visible everywhere. Is this a representative view of Belovezhskaya Pushcha for modern ages?

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(Compartment 680, May 31, 2003)

The sawn logs were dragged and removed out of the forest stand, closely passing by the king's oak (pictures 35, 36 and 37). Wheels of tractors and automobiles left deep traces behind. Once again it came to no single mind to fill the holes and to ameliorate the poor view of the harmed natural forest. Nowadays, a neatly looking shield near the old oak, with the inscription "Oak-patriarch", does not only mark a marvelous, prestigious oak, but also a truly disgusting piece of forest in the way human woodcutters left it behind.

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(Compartment 680, May 31, 2003)

The quarter of the forest shown here makes up the border of the Wildness Protection Zone. In the past specific boards stood on this spot and on other places where tourist routes passed near quarters of the Wildness Protection Zone. These boards served to inform visitors on the absolute reservation and of specific rules which applied in order to prevent harm to the wild nature of this zone. In detail, these boards mentioned the following aspects: "State National Park Belovezhskaya Pushcha", the name of the forestry department, "Wildness Protection Zone" and "passage, entering, pasturage of cattle, picking berries, mushrooms nuts and medicinal plants as well as hunting, fishing and other economic activities are FORBIDDEN!". Nowadays such boards are placed on many places, although nobody is keeping them in good state.

These pictures show the board indicating the Wildness Protection Zone, lying on the forests' floor close to the pole which indicates the specific quarter (pictures 38 and 39). In earlier times a tourist route passed by here. Today tourists see a defective board - out of service - just another proof of the indifference to the ultimate destiny of Belovezhskaya Pushcha's wild natural forest from the side of the administration of the National Park and its director Nickolai Bambiza

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(Compartment 779, May 31, 2003)

This short review outlined very clearly that the current administration of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park develops and improves the tourist sphere, to some extent, but it simultaneously does not take appropriate care of the local cultural heritage and the forest itself. The current administration introduces elements alien to the area's specific nature, culture and architecture. In short - it orders to do many wrong measures and / or to execute them in an unsatisfactory way and does not think of the fact that tourists, whom we should be thankful for their efforts to visit the National Park, witness all the ugly results.