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Living Planet

The Bavarian Forest: A Story of Regeneration

The Bark Beetle has destroyed vast areas of the Bavarian Forest Biosphere Reserve. This destruction and officials’ decision not to intervene has attracted international attention. But the forest is slowly regenerating.

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The Bavarian Forest has been left to its own devices.

The forest presents an eerie picture. From afar, huge sections stretching to the horizon appear lilac-gray. When you enter the forest, giant trees lie on the ground, along with broken branches. Those still standing are broken in half -- rotting wood as far as the eye can see.

But the forest is not dead. Beneath the trunks of fallen trees, young spruce have already started building a new forest. Beech, mountain ash and other deciduous trees are also growing in the areas cleared by the spruce bark beetle.

Hans Kiener, head of the Department for Nature Conservation at the Bavarian Forest National Park, says the new mountain mixed forest will be far superior to the old spruce wood stands that it replaces. "When you looked at this area 20 years ago, you saw a beautiful spruce forest, green and alive. But this spruce forest was not natural," Kiener explains.

UNESCO Biosphärenreservat Bayerischer Wald

Bavarian Forest

"It was manmade, tended for hundreds of years by the foresters. What we can see now is a new generation of trees that is of different ages and mixed, like a mosaic. We can expect the new generation will be more resistant to the bark beetles, which affected the old stand of trees before."

The Bavarian Forest National Park is the largest forest area in central Europe where nothing has been done to interfere with nature. The forest has simply been left to its own devices. Dead wood is not removed and nothing is done against pests, like the bark beetle.

No intervention

In 1981, the Bavarian Forest National Park was named a UNESCO Biosphere. Joseph Wanninger is in charge of the biosphere project. He says the inhabitants, for whom the forest represents an important asset in terms of natural resources in the past and as a tourist attraction in the present, were appalled that officials did nothing to stop the insect’s damage.

UNESCO Biosphärenreservat Bayerischer Wald, Bergfichtenwald Foto: Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald

Bavarian Forest in winter

"In the beginning, there were many problems," says Wanninger. "The people here wanted us to change the national park concept to allow us to stop the bark beetle, so to come into the forest with power saws and fight the beetle. Then, it became clear to them that such action would result in huge bare areas." Due to the park’s importance for the tourist industry, this would be bad for the region. "Now, although they are still very critical, they accept that we do not intervene," he says.

The spruce bark beetle is less than 6 millimeters long. It only attacks spruce trees, burrowing through the bark and feeding on the layer of tissue right beneath it, the cambium. These tissues carry nutrients from the foliage to the roots, and water from the roots to the foliage. The bark beetle digs tunnels in the cambium, where it lays its eggs.

Eventually it girdles the tree, cutting off the nutrients. Just 50 beetles are enough to kill a fully-grown tree in just eight weeks. The larvae laid in the tunnels hatch to produce tens of thousands of new beetles to attack neighboring trees.

The only effective way to stop destruction is to fell the tree and remove it from the park. The park officials only follow this procedure in the buffer zone between wilderness areas and commercial forests, in order to prevent the bark beetle from spreading outside the confines of the park.

Expansion to the East

Across the border from the Bavarian Forest is the Sumova National Park in the Czech Republic. With its 70,000 hectares, it is nearly three times the size of its German counterpart.

UNESCO Biosphärenreservat Bayerischer Wald, Luchs

Lynx, Bavarian Forest

With the entry of the Czech Republic into the European Union on May 1, 2004, Wanninger hopes that the first steps can be taken to expand the Bavarian Forest Biosphere -- not only in the direction of the communities surrounding it, but also across the border into the Czech Republic.

"The goal is one biosphere that crosses the border and includes both parks," says Wanninger. He says after May 1, it will be much easier to deal with cross-border issues with the Czech Republic. "With its entry into the EU, we hope the cooperation will be easier and I am sure we will begin work on an expanded cross-border biosphere." Such an area would include nearly 100,000 hectares of forest.

The Bavarian Forest will need another generation before it recovers from the damage incurred by the bark beetles. They have destroyed close to 4,000 hectares, or nearly one-sixth of the national park. However, the beetle attacks have been receding in the past two years and destruction, while it still goes on, has slowed down.

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