Wednesday March 9 - Mark in Strumitca, Macedonia
It was eerily quiet as we started our day Wednesday morning. The lack of virtually any activity on the small city’s streets was the only visible remaining sign of the previous night’s festivities. I woke up a bit groggy and packed up my things as it sounded like we were planning to head north later in the day bound for a new destination.
Thinking I was late by five or so minutes, I rushed downstairs with my bags only to find the lobby empty. Worrying that I was late enough to have missed them getting a start on the day, I asked the hotel manager if he’d seen any of my party yet. He pointed me outside where Pande enjoyed a cigarette and espresso with one of the hotel employees. It was three days before I learned that we’d gained an hour back when we entered Macedonia so I was consistently one hour early for everything - funny once I finally figured it all out.
Pande is a wonderfully warm man. Handsome and moderate in build with tight, curly greying hair and a warm smile. While he’s conversational in English, he was clearly far more comfortable speaking his native tongue so we unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy the depth of conversation we otherwise might have were either of us more adept in speaking one another’s language.
We eased our way into the morning. To me it seemed like a leisurely start on the day - what my Greek friends might refer to as ‘Greek time’. But in retrospect I now think that everyone was likely to have been right on time. We left our things at the hotel and headed off somewhere - I wasn’t quite clear where yet. We passed through across the parking lot, through the corridor, hung a left and entered a non-descript building, ascending the stairwell and landing on the second floor. I still didn’t know where we were or why we were there but it seemed like something moderately official.
We were warmly greeted by the office staff and were ushered into what seemed to be the head office of the building. I was then informed that we were meeting with the Director of the Regional Forest Enterprise Unit and I’d have time to ask him questions if I had any. Whew! Uh, I hadn’t really thought about that one yet and so I didn’t have all that much in store. To be completely honest, I was still wrapping my head around the organizational structure of the state forest management so I felt rather unprepared - as I might say in the States, slightly ‘thrown under the bus’. I started off with several questions about the context of their regional forests - scope, species, etc. Not sure if this visit was solely organized for me, I started to ease into the interview and ask questions that fundamentally addressed the history of the forests in the region. Seeing as how I was speaking through an interpreter to a man who was consistently also answering one of 6 (literally) different phones on his desk, peppered with steady intrusions from other visitors, guests, employees, etc, it soon became clear that without additional questions that were of definite relevance to the regional forest director, I’d reserve my line of questioning for the suite of well informed colleagues that I’d be exploring the forests with later that day.
One thing he did share though was that in 2001 Macedonia sold their state telecom company for a sizable sum and used some of these funds to support the purchase of 1 ha of greenhouse space used to propagate forestry trees. They established three different nurseries around the country and have the capacity to produce 12 million seedlings per year. They’ve focused largely on conifers to date including Pinus nigra and Cupressus arizonica but have also begun producing oaks.
As a result of their seedling production, country wide they planted 14 million pines last year (about 4000 ha annually with 4000 individuals per hectare). In the Strumitca district they planted 130,000 last year on 80 ha. They usually establish these planted stands on pare land and mainly consist of Pinus nigra, Pinus sylvestre, Abies spp., black locust, Thuja spp. and oaks. In the future they plan to reduce the scope of these plantings to about 10 million per year. While they plant in both autumn and spring, they have an 85% success rate in the fall which is far higher than that of spring plantings.
After another 10 minutes or so, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and headed outside to the parking lot where 2 Lada 4x4s were waiting for our party of 8. We set off for our day long field trip, stopping at a cafe on the way for a quick breakfast/coffee stop.
Setting some context for the state of the forests in the Republic of Macedonia, 90% of all forests are owned by the state. Of that total, 50% is coppice and 50% high forest. The nation features 30 forest management branches which are divided by their respective watershed boundaries. Each of these districts maintains management plans for between 6 and 20 state forests with the Strumitca district managing about 10,000 hectares divided between six different units. Generally speaking these management units must be 5000 ha or less for high forest and 10,000 ha or less for coppice stands. Each office creates the management plan, the ministry then goes on to approve it and checks to make sure it's been realized or accurately carried out.
Macedonia’s climate is dynamic, resting at the confluence of both Mediterranean and continental patterns. While prone to microclimatic variation, the Strumitca region receives about 500 mm precipitation annually with a dry summer - which means up to 5 months with no rain. Here are some statistics about the projected and realized wood yields in Strumitca:
Logs - Projected ~ 140,000 m3/yr (2009)
Realized - 96,000 (2009)
Firewood - Projected - 630,000 m3 (2009)
Realized - 460,000 m3 (2009)
For local harvest - 130,000 m3/yr
About 80% of this total is realized - In this case, trees are marked by state foresters for villagers to cut
In Macedonia, coppice management is still recognized as an applied management system. The vast majority (95%) of coppiced wood is sold as firewood. Retain it fetches about 50 Euros ($70) per ‘spatial’ cubic meter (one that’s stacked - the same way we measure stacks of firewood in the States). That’s almost $255 per cord. Beech is about 10-15% cheaper. Fuelwood costs in Macedonia are considerably higher than those of Bulgaria which means they face some competition from the neighboring country.
It’s rare to find oak of sawlog quality in Macedonia but when they do produce lumber, they typically export boards to Greece. Generally, species composition varies by elevation and they coppice at basically all of these levels. Beech occupies the highest sites, hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis) and sessile oak at the mid-slopes and pubescent oak at the low elevations.
Their primary management challenges come from anthropogenic (human) sources. Extensive overgrazing and selective cutting both reduce stand quality and stool vigor. Often villagers practice selective thinning in coppice stands which is useful if they’re removing low quality stems from individual stools, but if they completely remove all the stems from a stool, it is likely to die as it no longer receives any light to stimulate regrowth. While they do have roe deer, their numbers are controlled by active populations of both hunters and wolves.
Our mini convoy headed east, back towards the Bulgarian border. Just a few miles shy, we turned right and began to ascend Belsitsa Mountain - the same ridge that we’d climbed the previous day in Bulgaria. Somewhere between 800-1200’ elevation we stopped to examine some ten year old Sweet Chestnut coppice. Interspersed with an occasional black locust, Pande explained that this stand, like all of the chestnut they manage in Macedonia, is typically cut on a 25 year rotation. We explored a stand 100 ha in size (260 acres) that was actually last cut somewhere between 30-40 years ago.
On average, the regrowth was 8-9 meters in height (24-30’), and polewood dbh (diameter at breast height) varied from 4.5” through to 7” with poles of each class found on most stools. There was some variation in the number of stems per stool and the stand lay on a 15-25% grade. Typically it ranged from 5 through 7 with a few stools still possessing as many as 12 healthy stems. Stools were spaced fairly widely - 3-4m centers (10-13’) and they cast a dense shade on the forest floor - about 97% canopy cover. I found an average of 100 ft2 basal area per acre. Pande explained that this was most likely the third generation of resprouts from the trees originally planted here. Reading the growth rings on a remnant stump, during the early years, the pole averaged .1” diameter rings per year, falling to .05 and .02 as the canopy closed towards the 25+ age bracket. In the experience of our guides, these chestnut sprouts don’t start to produce nuts until they’ve reached about 25-30 years in age. At higher elevations, this mountain hosts extensive beech stands (450-500 meters and up). Below that, the chestnut thrives on the relatively moist, cooler north-northwest facing slopes.
While this chestnut did show some signs of the blight, it was not nearly affected as dramatically as the stands I saw in Croatia just a few days earlier. It was sunny and pleasant up on the mountain and we took a half an hour or so to explore the stand to get a feel for its structure and scope.
Our next stop took us over to the other side of the valley to Ograzhden Mountain - a much more dry, exposed, south-facing mountainside where the beech stands seldom extend below 900 meters elevation (as compare to 450-500 on the other side of the valley).’ We passed through a modest agricultural village on our way up, full of animals, narrow streets, crumbling buildings and lots of character. The intense pressure on the neighboring forest from humans for both fuelwood and grazing lands has long left a scarred, scrubby shrubland in its wake. Here the primary woody species were a very low growing, shrubby, stunted version of the sessile oak (Quercus petraea) and Juniperus oxycedrus, a largely prostrate, prickly evergreen shrub that seems to be a clear indicator of a legacy of overgrazing just about anywhere you go in the world.
We increased our distance from the village and the compacted grassy shrubland and began to climb higher up along the mountainside. The density of the trees increased steadily. Partway up the mid elevation slopes, a sizably impressive, well-placed valley dam filled the void along a bench in the slope - it was placed more or less at the keypoint (the point where the cross sectional shape of the valley changes from a convex to concave shape) of this ‘primary’ mountain valley. We stopped the car and took a few minutes to bask in the grandeur of this oasis which provides a high pressure gravity water source to several of the villages below. From this vantage, we could also make out an expansive clear cut on the far slopes of the mountain - a ‘salvage’ cut undertaken to harvest an useful fuelwood remaining after wildfire consumed a vast swath of the landscape a few years ago.
Ljupcho our skilled driver and a faculty of forestry member at St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Macedonia navigated along the rough, washed out road, straddling deep ruts in some of the more extreme stretches. Forest road maintenance is a constant activity. In Macedonia, they devote 3% of the annual State Forest budget to the practice which hardly covers the true costs/needs of this oh so critical infrastructure investment. Within the roughly 10,000 ha of forest in the Strumitca district, they average about 10-12 meters of road length per hectare. Each spring, machine operators use bulldozers to regrade the road and ensure it’s passable for forest workers and log trucks. Given that the Macedonian forest landscape is extremely mountainous, maintenance of access routes embodies the law of entropy - things steadily move from a state of order to disorder and it requires energy investment in order to revive that ordered state.
We reached a grassy plateau after about an hour of windy traversion (I’m making up a word - but I like it. It means ‘the act of traversing’) where a modest, deteriorating cabin provided us with a sheltered space to lunch. Built by the local Forest Enterprise Unit, these houses serve as hunting cabins and staging points for the teams of forest workers who work at some of these remote stands. Just prior to us arriving, I was wondering how foresters go about their work with such a long, windy potential commute - the cabin was the key. ‘Rustic’ in character to say the least, it contained a simple woodstove fabricated from a 55 gallon drum, a few beds, kitchen area and some scattered chairs. We set up our lunch outside on a table top and enjoyed more bread, cheese, and sausage. On top of that, a young forest engineer named Georgi generously gifted us all with pints of homemade rackia (schnapps) that we sipped to keep warm in the exposure of a steady mountain wind.
Before wrapping up completely, Pande asked me if I’d like to explore the woods and take some measurements. I’d yet to examine any of the Quercus petarea (sessile oak) here in Macedonia, so he and I rushed off into the woods. They typically harvest their oak on rotations somewhere between 45-55 years. Usually occupying dry, rocky, south facing slopes, the oak is much more slow growing that chestnut (25 year rotations) and they’ve found that this is the optimal point at which to harvest - the point at which the current growth increment and the mean growth increment curves intersect.
This particular stand was around 20-25 years old. Generally speaking, oaks in and around this area seemed to be spaced between 6-10’, with an average a bit closer to 8-10’. The landscape is very reminiscent of the shrub oak forests of the mid-elevation slopes along the Rocky Mountains as well as the scrub oak forests of California. Here each stool had between 1 and 4 stems that averaged between 25-35’ in height and 5” diameter at breast height (dbh). Canopy cover was dense here as well - about 95.4% but stem density was relatively low - 80 ft2 basal area per acre. For the most part, this was a monocultural stand - we found more diversity in the valleys but these areas tended not to be managed.
Not particularly straight and otherwise useless as a timber crop, this coppice oak is essentially a fuelwood-only product. Pande explained that on average, these sessile oak stands yield about 150 m3/ha, 15-17 cm (6-7”) dbh, and 15 meters in height (45-50’) after about 40-50 years regrowth. Their annual growth increment averages between 4-5 m3 per hectare (61.5 ft3/acre). Stands typically feature 1200 stools per hectare, (but it could be anywhere between 800 and 1500 depending on the stand) or 462 stools/acre. This amounts to about 5000 stems (poles) per hectare (1923/acre).
Pande and I hopped back into the near full cars that were waiting for us and we proceeded to visit another 10 year old stand of Q. petrea for comparison’s sake. Located on a steep (40%) slope, these stems were 10-15’ high and average between 4 and 7 quality stems per stool which themselves were spaced roughly 8-10’ from one another. Stem dbh averaged about 1.5-1.75 inches, with some as large as 2.25 and 2.5” .
With a long, bumpy ride ahead of us back down the mountain, we set off for Strumitca, retracing our steps from earlier in the day. Probably the most potent silvicultural discussion on the way explored the challenges of converting these oak copses into high forest. While the Republic of Macedonia still formally recognizes coppice as a desirable and viable forest management strategy, they still would like to diversify their wood products and develop a more varied mosaic of forest structure to help stabilize soils and build more diversity within the stands. In this area, most of the oak is nearing 55 years of age. With both oak and beech, their ability to vegetatively reproduce (coppice) after cutting drops off significantly beyond 50-60 years of age. (Chestnut, on the other hand, grows from the root collar, and so its shoots actually develop a new root system - it's much more resilient when coppiced and will thereby regrow even at relative maturity.)
Thus, they have a large area of land that will soon need some intervention. If they wait much beyond 55 years, it will be too late to see effective coppice regrowth, if instead they choose to wait and/or thin the stand so as to encourage seed dispersal and reproduction and things don’t work out as planned, it will be too late to reestablish coppice. In the end, most of us agreed that it was worth trying to encourage seed produced stands of high forest in patches integrated within the coppice stand. This will help vary the structure and minimize the losses if their efforts at stand reconstruction don’t succeed.
We returned to the Forest Enterprise office, dropped off the vehicles, picked up our luggage and headed north to our evening destination - a village near the town of Radovish - our base for the next day. Zdravko had grown up in this town and helped connect us with a local woman who rented rooms in her house. She kindly welcomed us in, showed us our space and made us tea and coffee. Here Pande gave me an invaluable resource - ‘Estimation of the Economical Limits of Wood Production As a Commodity in Low Graded Productive Forests’. A Macedonian study funded by the USDA in the 1970s that sought to quantify the productivity and value of coppice products. Meticulously undertaken, it featured a remarkable quantity of data on 5 different forest types throughout the country. For each community, they had measured stems per hectare, annual growth increment, basal area per hectare and total volume of wood for between 5 and 10 different stands at ages ranging from 20-60 or more years. This will prove to be an incredible asset to us as we develop our chapter on the yields of coppice systems.
Someone called a couple of cabs to pick us up outside and bring us to the restaurant where we’d planned to have dinner. As we waited in the cool night air, a clear sky bore familiar constellations, brining me back to the night sky in Vermont.
We shared drinks and food until midnight, leaving absolutely overstuffed - the specialty that night (in addition to yet another fabulously fresh tomato-cucumber-olives-white cheese salad) was the local specialty - basically a salmon pizza. I used my placemat to record the insights I drew out from Zdravko about the basic principles of forest access road siting and design. In short:
- Identify key areas to reach (stands of greatest valuable/most desirable to access)
- Determine the grade change and the horizontal distance between the starting point and the destination
- Aim for a 7% incline (10% will work but not ideal, 12% the absolute max)
- Optimize the access the roads provide by minimizing total length
- ‘Inwale’ roads (slope them in towards the slope) when possible to eliminate the danger of loaded trucks tipping over down hillsides
- Include a ditch for water collection on inwaled roads to help minimize downcutting and erosion (and make sure to send it somewhere useful!)
Depending on budget/available resources, lay a clean, well compacted gravel base (4-6”), topped with 2” or so of finer material (or just remove topsoil and compact the site subsoil)
We took cabs back home with enough time to get a few hours worth of sleep.