Rise from the ashes

#RestorationStory by Bas Lerink, supported by Judit Torres and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña

The sun peaks over the roof of Cathedral Santa Maria as I make my way downtown the city of León. The huge stained-glass windows light up in red and yellow, as a promise for a hot day. I am meeting our Spanish SUPERB colleagues in their CESEFOR office, to catch up with recent activities in our SUPERB demonstration site. It is great to meet again with the demo representatives Judit Torres (CESEFOR) and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña (Junta CyL) and to get to know Rafael, the forest manager of the El Bierzo sites. A lot has happened since we last met, so we take the time to discuss the events of the past weeks.

The Castilla y León demo gives a fascinating insight in the relationship between men and bear. The aim of the demo is to improve the habitat of the brown bear, while simultaneously engaging the rural population. If not challenging enough, there is always the lurking danger of forest fires in the region. Two weeks ago, Judit organised the demo’s stakeholder workshop, uniting friend, and foe of the bear. They discussed the forest restoration measures planned by the local partners, with room for adjustments. The presence of the brown bear can incidentally trouble activities of the local population, especially for beekeepers. But they already found a solution by subsidising e.g. electric fencing around the beehives, to fend off curious bears with a sweet tooth. In the coming weeks, the workplan will be finalised, with detailed descriptions of the restoration measures on specific sites, and I am already curious to read them.

Stand with excessive regeneration
Mature stand with barn owl nest

Meanwhile, we finish our discussions in the CESEFOR office and hit the road to El Bierzo region, where the sites are located. We pick up Santiago, forest ranger of the Igüeña site, which we will visit first. In the selected stands, our local partners will carry out silvicultural measures to improve the habitat of the brown bear. This involves thinning out dense Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) stands to create easier passage, while in Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica) stands trees are selected to increase acorn production. In recently burned stands, they plan enrichment planting to provide new shelter. Judit drives us in CESEFOR’s 4×4 Landcruiser to the different stands of the Igüeña site.

The stands have been chosen based on a gradient of degradation, e.g. from severely degraded, up until the ideal reference situation. We visit a recently burned stand, where the blackened trees clearly indicate where the fire blazed. Where possible, they plan some enrichment plantings to help this stand to recover. Iñigo explains how current management shifted from creating large ‘cortafuegos’ (long clear-felled strips), to decreasing the available fuel in the stands. This was decided because the cortafuegos deform the landscape, have to be maintained a lot and are often not effective for crown fires.

The cortafuegos are visible as long brown strips (photo: Bas Lerink)

The middle section of the chronosequence consists of Pyreneanoakstands with overdue management. Santiago takes us to a dense stand with very slender trees and a blanket of oak root regeneration, prone to fire. Right next to it is a reference stand, where low thinning and enrichment planting of e.g. rowan and whitebeam (Sorbus aucuparia and S. aria) were successful. Santiago shows us a picture that he took here 20 years ago of a big capercaillie, which were once abundant in these forests. The end of the chronosequence is a fantastic mature stand of Pyreneanoakwith many microhabitats. The trees have large crowns, capable of producing lots of acorns for the brown bear and the forest structure is resilient to forest fires. Iñigo is clear on his goal: ‘In the future, most of the forest area of El Bierzo will look like this’.

Happy with what we have seen, we head for an old molino where Santiago used to mill back in the days, but which is now transformed to a restaurant. We enjoy a tasty lunch with local ingredients and then drive up in the mountain range to see the Corullón site. In the midst of a 200-hectare soto (orchard) of sweet chestnut trees, there is a burned patch of a few hectares. Here, our local SUPERB team will plant new grafted chestnut trees to increase the production of sweet chestnut. With this measure, Judit, Iñigo and their colleagues aim at engaging the rural population, as sweet chestnuts are valued a lot by the local people.

While the sun sets behind the Corullón mountain ridges, we call it a day. In the past 12 hours, we have seen the challenges that the Castilla y León demo has to face. However, above all, we have also discovered great opportunities to restore the forest lands, for men and bear. This demo is one to watch!

Featured image: SUPERB demo area with sweet chestnut orchard on the right side, with holm oak on the left (southward facing) side of the slope (photo: Bas Lerink). Bas is a PhD student with Wageningen Research.

Exploring Romanian forests – an unexpected journey

by Silke Jacobs, Sara Filipek, Gert-Jan Nabuurs & Bas Lerink

‘Timber Mafia’, ‘Notorious corruption’ and ‘Destruction of last virgin forests’. News articles about Romanian forests and their management are dominated by headlines like these or with a likewise tendency. But we were wondering: Is that really the only thing we should know about Romanian forests? Or are there also examples of good and sustainable forest management – as well as protection of primary forests?

As the Wageningen University & Research team of the SUPERB Project, which aims at upscaling forest restoration, we were eager to explore Romanian forests and to get in touch with its foresters. Although we heard the stories of the impressive untouched forests, our expectations were mixed. After our SUPERB conference in Sibiu ended, we headed north-east to Suceava for an introduction to the last remnants of Europe’s primeval forest. We were looking forward to the wilderness, but also curious about regular forest management in the productive spruce and beech stands of the Suceava district.

Oncoming traffic on our way to Suceava
Oncoming traffic on our way to Suceava

The journey from Sibiu to Suceava was an adventure on itself: zigzagging between horse drawn hay carts and putting our rental car and our driving skills to the test on unpaved forest roads. Unscathed and in awe of the Transylvanian landscape we arrived at our hotel in a suburb of Suceava. After some leg stretching, we went off to bed quickly, as we all knew we had a great hike scheduled for tomorrow.

The next morning appeared to be a beautiful hiking day and we were excited to meet the famous forest professors couple Laura and Olivier Bouriaud. With our company of six, we went off to pick up a local forester from ROMSILVA as seventh companion. He is an active forest manager in the Suceava forest district and knows his way through the vast Carpathian forests. It was until later that day, when we realised how essential it was to be guided around by someone with the knowledge and skills for wandering around.

Information sign on the left and regeneration gap on the right

Around 40% of Romanian forests are FSC-certified, which means that wood is harvested in a sustainable manner in these areas, respecting wildlife and other ecosystem services. We visited a recently thinned certified forest stand, with imposing spruce trees on fertile calcareous soils. Gaps that were created earlier by selective thinning or smaller clear-cuts were quickly claimed by regeneration from primarily spruce. Ferns dominated the understorey, but also gave way to species like Paris quadrifolia, which is in decline in Europe due to loss of habitat and might soon be on red lists. What we saw in this forest stand very much contrasted with the harsh media stories. At the border of the forest stand, an information sign was placed, to inform visitors on e.g. the measures, the volume of removed wood and the exact planning. We walked through the stand discussing the measures and the related communication to stakeholders.

We hiked along the mountainside, clutching the stems and branches from large beech trees for support. Finally, we reached a ridge that pointed out above the canopy. Here we had a great and rather humbling view on the surrounding forest area and the outskirts of the Slatioara town. After this highlight and catching our breath, we were ready for the descent. The first few meters were so steep that we agreed to slide down from a seated position, until we were able to stand up again and walk carefully over the old trail. We descended to the creek running through the reserve, where we washed our hands and drank some ice-cold water. Later that day, Laura and Olivier took us to their home for a fantastic BBQ, after which we returned to our hotel for a well-deserved rest.

Exhausted but extremely happy after intense hiking in the Codrul Secular Slătioara

The day after this fantastic field visit, we were invited to give a lecture about our work and projects on the Ştefan cel Mare University of Suceava. Silke presented the SUPERB project to an enthusiastic group of students from the forestry department. Gert-Jan backed that up with a lecture on his IPCC work, while Sara and Bas spoke about their projects related to climate smart forestry. After an interesting discussion with the audience, it was time for us to leave the university and prepare for our return journey to the Netherlands with our own impressions of the Romanian forests or at least part of it.