Tuesday March 8 - Bulgaria
Another late night made it difficult to arise at 6:45 to once again pack my things for our road trip today. I had planned to take a shower before we left but at 7 o’clock sharp (I was supposed to get picked up at 7:15), the phone range and my ride was already waiting for me below. Oh well, I pulled my things together and headed downstairs. Across the street, Georgi Hinkov sat waiting in his car. Georgi, an immensely kind, warm man, absolutely reminiscent of Seinfeld’s George Costannza, only spoke broken English but I think we enjoyed one another’s company thoroughly. We picked up Tzvetan at his hotel and the three of us headed southwest where we had planned to meet Ivo at the Rila monastery and later cross the border together into Macedonia to meet a few colleagues there and continue our tour.
As time passed, the landscape grew much more open and gently rolling as compared to the more angular mountains surrounding sofia. Georgi and Tzvetan explained that though the climate was still very much the same there deforestation and soil loss have together resulted in a landscape that today possesses much less vegetation and forested land. In many areas the land was largely treeless resembling the rolling hills of the Dakotas. One of the reasons that contributed to a more damaged vegetational regime is the simple fact that we were growing closer to Greece and the intensive development of the old world cultures there.
After about 45 minutes on the road, we turned east and headed up valley along a road flanked by stately poplar trees - clearly an anthropogenic phenomenon, likely signaling our approach to the ancient Rila Monastery. Nestled on a high perch in a breathtaking valley, the monastery possesses 10,000 ha of land (26,000), nearly all of which is forested and only 1% of which is in plantation. The name ‘Rile’ literally means full with water and the richness of the landscape here showed this clearly. Blanketed in a modest layer of snow, we learned that this had been a relatively dry winter - usually the snow would be a meter high or more at this point in the season. Species wise, the woodlands are primarily home to Norway spruce, silver fir, beech, Scots pine, sycamore, mountain ash, and Populus tremula. Still a few miles below the monastery itself, we met up with Ivo and two foresters who accompanied us up tot he compound. Here the temperature dropped from 12 C down in the valley later in the day, to -4 C. Absolutely dramatic. The strong winds took us to a wintry land that few of us had recently visited.
It turns out, one of Ivo’s additional jobs (additional that is on top of being a full time employee of the Forest Research Institute and a parent) is the forest manager of this 10,000 ha expanse. We started off exploring the monastery grounds itself - my words will do little to describe it so instead I’ll illustrate with pictures below.
From here, Ivo, Tzvetan and I continued up valley to examine the vast landholdings surrounding us. Ivo explained that the property was heavily logged in 1902. Over the course of 30 years, they harvested 4 million cubic feet of wood. Since then the forest has been untouched and it is more or less in the same state it was before this extractive event a century ago. Today the forest has become a national park which places some restrictions on its management. Ivo’s goal (as well as the goals of the monastery) is to enhance the health of the forest while providing an income source for the monastery. Today the forest has a growing stock of 2.5 million m3 and Ivo has been planning the removal of 5000 m3 each year. This reflects a very minimal reduction in total volume and most of the areas where they have thinned are just that - commercial thinning cuts intended to improve the quality of the remaining timber while providing an income source. Looking at the areas we passed that they had thinned, one wouldn’t even know that an intervention had been made.
The air at the upper land was brisk and fresh and the forest quiet, stately and a joy to behold. No coppice here. They had taken me here because they wanted to show me that not all the forests in Bulgaria are coppice. I felt fortunate to have an opportunity to experience the peacefulness of this place with such experienced, knowledgable guides.
On the way down the mountain, we discussed the challenges they face in their work as foresters and probably the most common theme was the disconnect between those scientists, NGOs and policy-making bodies who are conservation minded, seeing forest management as little more than an extractive enterprise, rather than the art and science that it truly is. Of course this isn’t to say that conservation efforts aren’t of tremendous value to global ecosystem health but rather that for ecosystem management (even if it’s a hands-off management system) to be sustainable in all senses, it needs to be economical as well. Most of you all are probably already well aware of this line of reasoning and it certainly isn’t applicable in all contexts (old growth forests, etc) but becomes a very important perspective and philosophy as we explore the convergence of the three bottom lines (ecological, economic and social).
At the base of the mountain, we bid Ivo goodbye. It was midday and time for lunch by this point so we stopped in town to pick up bread, cheese, sausage, halva and fruit. From there we headed up a secondary valley stretching to the road from a hillside settlement home to some Bryce canyon like erosional features. Pummeled by a sharp westerly wind, lunch was fairly short.
We had one last stop to make before crossing into Macedonia for the evening. On the northern face of Belasitsa Mountain, the Bulgarian Forest Research Institute has been undertaking a multi-year study examining a unique chestnut stand that is experiencing significant decline in recent years. I struggled to stay awake as we climbed the mountain but once we were there, the excitement of the landscapes grand history changed matters fast.
Belasitsa Mountain actually straddles the borders of three countries - Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece. Here we found a stand of sweet chestnut spanning about 600-700 hectares that had a remarkably dynamic structure. Formerly a wood pasture, core data samples place these massive pollarded trees, some of which are 24-30” in diameter at about 150 years in age. The research team has come to believe that this wood pasture was likely managed more as a ‘seed pasture’ - with the villagers harvesting the nuts from these massive trees and only occasionally cutting the pollard stems. These trees are widely spaced, averaging about 15 meters (45-50’) between individuals.
In all, today the forest features 3 primary ages of woody vegetation - the mature pollards, 50 year old growth and then younger more recent understory growth. Based on their research, about 50 years ago, people stopped managing the seed pasture, and a new generation of trees emerged - the standard chestnuts that are now shading out the pollards, causing the vast majority of them to rapidly senesce in their dense canopy. After this point in history where people stopped managing the seed pasture, the stand has since grown particularly wild - so much so that it appears that little human intervention has since ensued.
The ‘problem’ - Chestnut is not tolerant of shade. So if the stand continues as it is, it will eventually give way to more shade tolerant species like beech and hornbeam. Because chestnut is a high value, fast growing wood that is declining in vigor in many places due to the chestnut blight, they would like to explore the details of the stand so that they can better characterize its health and also consider strategies to help ensure that the chestnut might be restored to health and continue on in its productivity on the site into the future. What seems to be the most promising strategy at the moment would be to open large forest gaps - 50 meters in diameter so as to ensure adequate light reach the forest floor to enable seed regeneration.
We only spent an hour or so exploring the stand and more than anything it was inspiring to see its structure and imagine what it might have looked like at the peak of productivity. Yet another thick layer unearthed in the complex world of silviculture.
Heading west, we sliced through the valley below Belasitsa Mountain towards the Macedonian border. Intensive agriculture became more common in this area and we began to see scattered groups of plastic covered hoop houses dot the landscape. At the border, almost everything went smoothly until the Macedonian immigration officer wanted a clear explanation as to why an American would have a eastern European name like ‘Krawczyk’. This has been the first time in my life that people have pronounced and spelled my surname on their own with no help whatsoever. In fact they pronounce it even better than me. It’s like another world.
After a bit of explaining, Georgi had us on our way. We were on our way to the small city of Strumitca where we’d planned to meet three Macedonian forestry professors. We coincidentally timed our visit perfectly to coincide with the annual Strumica Carnival - a regional festival commemorating the start fo the Easter season. We met our resident expert and tour convener, Pande Traijkov in the city center and made our way to the hotel. After checking in and sharing a few rounds of ‘rakia’ (local schnapps) we headed out on the town for our evening meal. It tuns out Pande grew up nearby so he knew the region well. In addition to Pande, Tzvetan, Georgi and myself, our party included Ljupcho Nestorovski - the former manager of the Macedonian State forests and Zdravko …, an immensely kind and knowledgeable forest engineer.
After a multi-course meal, we headed out on the town. The annual Carnival draws an estimated 10,000 people, complete with multi-national parade, all night parties, loud music, dancing, etc. We had a table reserved for us at a trendy club, with blaring music where we enjoyed drinks and ample second hand smoke. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, soaking up the immensity of the ‘cultural’ celebration before retreating to bed for a few hours.