Do you know what Europe looked like before 750 Million humans spread out here and turned over every stone? For most of the time after the ice ages, big forests streched through the heart of the continent covering the plains and hills. There are only a few places left today where you can get an idea what a forest like this would look like, untouched by humans (old-growth or primeval). Trees reaching high into the sky, thick undergrowth with moss and ferns, bog areas and curvy river beds, big bisons and wild wolves roaming the lands.
It has been a dream of mine to see this and now we are here, in the Białowieża forest and national park at the border between Poland and Belarus. There is a threat that the new Polish government will allow cutting down trees in this precious UNESCO world heritage site, claiming that the forest needs management in order to survive bark beetles – that it has been dealing with for all this time without humans. The short term profit from selling the wood seems too tempting for them. So it is a good time for us to travel here, see the forest and help the national park service as volunteers.
This is not a project as nicely organised as our previous ones in Indonesia, that were mediated by a company called The Great Projects. Here, we contacted the National Park Service directly and only had vague ideas about where to drive, where we will stay and what we will be able to do. After a bit of chaos on the first day, we’ve now settled into a house shared with currently 7 other volunteers in the middle of nowhere, a village called Stare Maziewo. All of them except one are from Poland and many of them do not speak English. Our Polish is still bad, przepraszam, so every day is full of wonder. The other scary part is that the border to Belarus is only a few hundred meters from our house in the forest and the coordinator simply said: Whatever you do, don’t cross the border, we cannot help you if they pick you up…
We’ve now started our work, the task today was to record the extend of the bark beetle infestation at a specific location in the forest. So equipped with a GPS, a crayon marker and a small map, we where sent into the woods. After a bit of practice, identifying spruce trees and assessing whether they are infected by Ips typhohraphus was not too hard. Much harder was walking through the thick forest on more or less straight lines to cover the whole plot. Even with a GPS in our hand, we managed to get lost once.
This kind of work should be helpful for assessing the situation in this forest and elsewhere. Previous results showed that the managed forest, where infected trees are cut down immediatlly and pulled out of the forest along with any dead wood lying around, was actually more affected than the protected natural forest in the longer term. Some spruces can better defend themselved against the beetles and will survive to start the recovery of the forest. These kind of waves have been happening for many years. The dead wood decomposing in the undergrowth is a very important habitat for countless other animals and will in the end fertilise the remaining plants.
We had to get out of the forest in the afternoon as a thunderstorm was coming down, but we were looking forward to taking our boots off anyway, leaving the mosquitos and ticks behind – but we’ll be back tomorrow.