Slovakia’s Tatras – The Heart of European Wilderness
By Jim O’Donnell
Vlado Vançura, volunteer wilderness ranger and member of the European Wilderness Society (EWS) pointed to lichen hanging from a spruce as evidence that things were indeed getting better. “You would have never seen that in communist days,” he said. Air pollution was such a massive problem before Slovakia joined the European Union that foresters even forgot that lichen on a tree was natural he explained to me.
“The EU has insisted that we clean our air and we are seeing the results.”
I spent most of last October with members of EWS in Slovakia’s Tatras National Park. I wanted to see what challenges the nascent European wilderness movement is running up against.
One dreary morning, Vlado and I biked up an old asphalt road into the park, hid the bikes in the trees next to the river and climbed several hours into the Koprovsky dolina, a smaller side valley in the Ticha dolina (Silent Valley) area. For the several days prior Vlado, myself, wolf biologist Gudrun Pflueger and her son Conrad hiked into the most remote areas in Europe, looking for “wilderness”…. or what could be “wilderness”….or SHOULD BE “wilderness….Wilderness being a pretty fuzzy term – more often than not a fluid philosophy rather than a set definition. But there we were, in a very wild Koprovsky dolina. I shivered, a bit from the cold and a bit from the thrill of wildlands.
The European Wilderness Society is on a long-term mission to identify, protect and restore the remaining wilderness areas in Europe. I’m trying to understand the complexity of the task they face. The High Tatras Mountains offer a perfect example of all of those challenges rolled into one magnificent mountain range. Each valley tells a different story.
The Ticha Dolina is on the positive side of the story. For several decades now this lush valley has been protected as “Zone 5” by the Slovakian government, which is the most strict form of management. There is no logging and there are no roads. As a result, natural processes have largely been allowed to return to the several thousand-hectare area. The results are stunning.
The Ticha dolina stands in stark contrast to what is going on just outside the valley where – even in the national park – massive clear cuts of mono-cultured spruce forests have laid waste to the mountain slopes and riparian areas. Where the timber has been harvested, it looks like an atomic bomb exploded.
The management of Tatras National Park is extraordinarily complex. In communist times the park was nationalized but after the collapse of communism and Slovakia’s break the the Czech Republic, the land was returned to the individual landowners, the hunting organizations and the cooperative landowner associations that appeared again, wanting a piece of the pie the park offered.
And so what you have in the neighboring Račkova Valley is a situation where a multitude of landowners and associations control different portions of the land and all have varying interests. Some want to see the land returned to the wild, some wish to have private cabins while others wish to see the area logged. The park management has plans to place the upper portions of the valley under a strict zoning criteria that somewhat resembles what we think of as “wilderness” in North America. Slovakia Wilderness. A dream for many people in the region. That plan has been on the books for 15 years. However, it hasn’t happened yet because of conflicts with the varying owners and in that time (about 10 years ago) the upper portions of the valley were logged. Now, the lower section is being logged and the entrance to the valley is choked with trucks and machinery tearing up muddy roads into forest.
All of this within the National Park.
For an American, seeing this kind of destruction in what is supposedly a national park is rather shocking.
Natural processes in the Tatras mean that whole stands of trees are knocked down and replaced by massive wind storms or bark beetle infestations that have a similar impact on the ecosystem as fire does on the forests of the western United States. As a result, the ecosystem processes are functioning more or less as they should, with healthy soils, high species diversity, a mosaic of forest types and a healthy, crystal clear stream born from the glacial falls high in the granite cirques near the Polish border. Vlado insists that just 20 years ago, this kind of “let it be” management would have been unthinkable.
Our climb along the river was muddy and steep – and frequently interrupted by giant piles of blueberry laden bear poop. The European brown bear thrives in this valley. As do pine martens, marmots, chamois, lynx and even wolf. The wolf is Gudrun’s job and in the evening over a much needed beer and a plate of deer gulash she pulled out a mass of fur she had plucked from a bush along the river bank just above the park boundaries.
There is no wilderness without wolves.
Lacking however, are birds. I’m a bird guy and so I’ve been keenly aware that there is an unmistakable dearth of bird-life in the Slovakian mountains. Several people have now said “oh, that is normal” but I question that very idea that anything can be normal without masses of birds. What does “normal” mean then? Is it just that people have gotten used to an interrupted ecosystem where birds are few and far between?
That is what I suspect. I’ve never been any place with so few birds (except Austria….). Without birds there is the feeling is that something vital is desperately missing from the landscape.
Up top amongst the blueberry, cranberry, juniper and heather on the ridge-line, Vlado and I lunched under a pounding cold wind. The weather was pretty rough the whole day, thick, dark clouds hung lower and lower on the valley, making the photography portion of the trip rather challenging.
In the mid to late 1800s nationalistic movements swept Europe. Key to these movements was that the unique landscapes of a “homeland” where emblematic of a larger national identity. At the center of the Slovak identity (then under the thumb of the Hungarians) were the Tatras Mountains. The peaks were large, unbreakable, magical and the mythological homeland of the Slavs in general.
“The motif of the Tatras can be found in the early 19th Century writings by eminent Slavist Pavel Jozef Šafárik (1795-1861) or in the texts by the author of the first literary Slovak language standard Anton Bernolak (1762-1813). However, the first to have eulogized the Tatras was Catholic vicar and writer Ján Hollý (1785-1849). In his epic Svatopluk….Hollý stresses not only the relationship of man and nature but also the close ties between the Slovaks and the Tatras….”
Wildlands, then, are part of the core of what it means to be Slovakian. Not to mention human.
Throughout October, Vlado, Gudrun, Conrad and I explored the different management styles at work in the Tatras, their effects on wildlands and ecosystems and how politics, economy and even nationalism impact the dream of creating a European wilderness core for the future of this continent.
Ever so slowly, Slovakia is moving in the right direction. Just painfully slow.
Several days later I stepped out of a small, remote cabin in the Račkova Valley just before sunrise. A warm air was flowing up the valley. I took a quick bath in the cold stream and then sat by the fire, drinking coffee and waiting for the sunlight to touch Nizna Bystra, a peak across the valley. Several jays were playing on the edge of a spruce stand where it opened onto a 10-year old clear cut that was filling in with deciduous trees.
Later, after a morning snack I sat with Vlado and Gudrun on a rise near the river. We ate cranberries growing along the streambanks. The water was clean enough to drink – although it was so cold it hurt my teeth. The haze and moisture in the air deflected the sunlight in such a way that there were silhouettes in literally every direction. The forests on the hilltops above were black masses of spikes against the white background and the mist curled between the trees like ghosts. By late morning, the mist had burned off, the sky was blue and the air was hot and heavy with humidity.
From down lower in the valley, when the wind blew just right, we could hear the sounds of chainsaws.
Award-winning author and photographer Jim O’Donnell is fortunate enough to call Taos, New Mexico his home base. That said, his sometimes aimless wanderings have taken him to over 40 countries on five countries and are to blame for the five languages he is sure he can stumble his was through. O’Donnell is the author of “Notes for the Aurora Society” and “Rise and Go”. He is also to blame for numerous articles, sordid tales, brilliant observations, half-finished novels, angry letters-to-the-editor and other scribblings. He is currently the Jack Williamson Endowed Chair for Literature at Eastern New Mexico University.