Friday March 11 - Mark in western Macedonia
I woke up at what I thought was 7:45, leaving myself a few minutes to prepare before Ljupcho came to pick me up around the corner at 8. I found Ilija in the kitchen where he offered to make me coffee. I gladly obliged, though steadily saw the clock ticking away, growing closer to 8. A minute or so before, I told him I was probably going to have to hurry as I should probably head outside to meet my ride. He looked at me surprised and said, ‘I thought you were getting picked up at 8’. This is when it finally hit me - I’d been an hour early for everything for the last three days. It was so relieving to realize that I’d suddenly gained an hour of life - and a most relaxing hour at that.
Ilija ran out to pick up some breakfast - burek - a delicious, flaky, coiled, cheese (or meat or spinach) filled pastry that I’ve learned to absolutely love. He talked a bit about his work as a lawyer and he shared some very interesting insights into the history of the Republic of Macedonia and the relatively recent transition from Communism to Democracy. This entire region is highly complex with a long-ranging, dynamic and varied history. Disputes over borders, centuries of occupation, a wide diversity of languages, cultures and religions all contribute to the dynamism of this ecologically rich region.
At 8, I went out to meet Ljupcho and we headed across town to pick up Pande for our day trip to the western side of Macedonia. This was somewhat familiar territory for me. Almost a year ago I’d spent a few days there at the end of a trip to Greece that was sparked by a an opportunity to teach a natural building class there. We left Skopje and soon approached some of the highest mountains in the country, heading south along the foothills until we had no choice but to climb.
Our first stop was a place called Mavrovo - a mountain town and more recently, a national park. At these high elevations, most of the forests consist of either beech or coniferous species. As we reached the entry of the park, we pulled over to examine an extensive beech stand. Apparently human pressure on this landscape was significant up until the development of the national park. Fuelwood harvest and large sheep populations kept the forests in a largely stunted state. At this point, the wood-pasture-type stand featured beech pollards that were about 10’ high, 3-4' dimeter and had a very low quality stem - basically useless for lumber. The forest management plan sought to convert this degraded wood pasture into a high forest over the course of 100 years. They first cut the trees between 1965-70, allowing the beech to coppice. Five years ago, they went through the stand, thinning the stools down to single stems with the long-term vision of converting the stand to a seed-originated forest. Because the forest lies within the boundaries of a national park, the scope of their management is limited.
Mavrovo National Park covers 73,000 hectares, has 400 km worth of trails, and 70 employees. The park’s forestry office oversees forest management, hunting, wildlife management and tourism. They harvest 18,000 to 20,000 m3 fuelwood per year, marketing it to locals, log companies and retail outlets in the town of Gostivar. Because of the access and management challenges due to the snowpack, they carry out felling operations fro May-November (and because they aren’t managing for coppice growth).
We spent a half hour exploring the park, stopping to enjoy some majestic views out towards Albania, just beyond the ridge of the highest peak in Macedonia. The snowpack made the roads and trails relatively difficult to traverse this time of year, and there really wasn’t any coppice to see, so we turned around and headed south.
It was very interesting to me to re-explore this landscape with two well-trained locals. When I’d visited western Macedonia in 2010, I was completely oblivious of the fact that the vast majority of the forests I was looking at were managed as coppice. The longer rotation lengths and the expansive extent of the stands helped them blend into the mountainside. This time, I understood that most of the mountains were blanketed in coppice cover and likely had been for the past few centuries. About 10 miles down the road, we pulled off to examine a large clearcut of a nearby oak stand as well as some of the more recent regrowth in the stands adjacent to it.
The first area Pande and I looked at was a four year old sessile oak (Quercus petraea) stand. The stems were 1-2 meters in height (3.5-7’) averaging about 1.5 m. Stools contained between 6-12 quality stems that were approximately .8” diameter (ranging from .5-1.3”). Pande explained that oak coppice typically produces a considerable number of stump sprouts at an early age (10 or more), but by the age of 15-20, they’ve typically died back to one or two.
As we examined the stools in the stand, we noticed that some were markedly larger than others and the smaller ones tended not to display much in the way of remnant stumps around the stool. As we examined these smaller stools more closely, it appeared as if they were actually root sprouts - not stump sprouts. The more we looked, the more common this pattern seemed to be. The healthiest, most vigorous sprouts all emerged from a clear stool base where several stumps still remained - they were easily twice the size of those clumps emerging from root sprouts. This seemed to be an observation new to Pande as well.
Several other coppice compartments bordered this stand so we could compare their respective rates of growth and stocking quite easily. In a stand close to the road that was probably closer to 20 years old we found clear evidence of locals having cut and removed the sprouts from entire stools interspersed relatively randomly within the coppice. The deleterious effects of this was plainly visible - stuck in the shadows of a near-closed canopy, these poor oak stools showed little more than a few sickly, near-dead sprouts, and at this point were likely dead and lost.
On the other side of the highway, I took 15 minutes or so to explore the regrowth of a ten year old oak-hazel stand. It was great to see a mixed stand, as most of the coppice systems I’ve seen to date were relatively monocultural. The hazel had come up very strong but it was hard for me to imagine what useful ends the state forestry department would have for this oh-so-useful craft material. The oak stools were spaced about 4-6’ from one another, with scattered hazel mixed in throughout. The oaks featured between 2 and 6 stems per stool and were about 15-18’ tall. Average diameter was about 2.25”. Individual hazel stools had far more stems - between 11 and 16 on average - and average about 1” dbh. Long and straight, they would be a very high value product if there were a market for woven hazel crafts.
We got back in the car and continued to head south towards the town of Kichevo. Soon enough we had descended from the mountains, reaching a spreading valley just before the town. We pulled into a parking lot at the northern end of town where we met the directors of the local Forest Enterprise Unit. After exchanging greetings, the five of us crammed into a Lada 4x4 and continued along to the mountains southwest of the settlement.
It was a beautiful bright sunny day and after about 20 minutes we reached our destination. Our first stop came along the low slopes of the hillside where we found a southeast-facing (25-30% slope)twenty year old mixed stand that featured an impressive diversity of species. While oak dominated the stand, ash, alder, lime/linden, hazel, apple, wild cherry and Cornus mas all could be found within a radius of 50 meters. The oak stools possessed between one and four stems per stool with stem diameters averaging about 3-3.5” with the largest reaching 4.6”. Ash stools tended to have more stems - 4 or 5 - while their diameter averaged about 4”, ranging from 3.7-4.35.
At two different points, I found stand densities of 90 and 120 square feet of basal area per acre. Though the stand wasn’t particularly photogenic, and it wasn’t the prettiest woodland to the eye, I was delighted to have had an opportunity to see such a diverse and mixed stand. One of my personal reservations about many of the coppice systems I’d seen in the UK was their ‘monoculturality’. While I can appreciate this structure from a ease of management perspective, ecologically speaking it makes for a bland, simplistic ecology. As I’ve read, most coppice stands were developed from what were once diverse, mixed woodlands, gradually converted towards an even-aged coppice structure. I imagine that many of the systems I’d previously seen were either the result of planting initiatives or generations of selection with the intention of creating a more pure stand. It’s great to see that there are examples of working multi-species stands.
We then continued on up the hillside to explore a ‘reconstructed’ (converted) turkey oak (Quercus cerris) high forest. Our hosts began working to convert this stand about 7 years ago. Covering about 150 hectares, the ‘singled’ standard oak trees are now about 60 years old. The management plan calls for harvest of the ‘mature’ oaks on a 100 year cycle.
At another mixed stand occupying a steep, southeast facing slope (42% grade), lime/linden, hazel, wild cherry, ash and Cornus mas all comprised the forest understory. The singled oak trees were about 15’ from one another and measured 10.5-13.5” dbh. I measured a stand density of 90 square feet of basal area per acre. While a clever observer would make out the swoop at the base of the oak trees that indicated their former management as coppice stools, without that partially hidden clue, it would be hard to recognize the history of this stand as anything other than a natural, uneven-aged, seed-originated forest.
We explored the woods for a half hour or so, walking downslope to a log landing adjacent to the lower section of the road we’d arrived on. Examining the leaf litter and organic layer of the soil, I found a healthy mycorrhizal fungi mat. It seemed like this forest was well on it’s way to adding more structural diversity to a hillside that had been managed solely as coppice for the past few centuries.
We drove back to Kichevo and sat down for a late lunch at a local taverna. I’d become accustomed to this pattern by this point and settled into a comfortable seat where we shared food and drink for a couple of hours. Our hosts recommended I try a local specialty for which I’m grateful. Deliciously spiced house-made sausage and a massive hamburger-like ground beef patty. Following a lovely first course of fresh salad, the food was amazing as usual.
The afternoon had grown late and we dropped off our local forester hosts before making our way back to Skopje. Ljupcho and I carried on an impassioned conversation about our respective views on the economics of forestry systems and my reflections on the management strategies I’d seen during my trip. While we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, I’m hoping our personal philosophies may have influenced each other to view the practice with a more comprehensive eye.
As we arrived back in the city, I did my best to express heartfelt gratitude to Ljupcho and Pande for their gracious guidance, freely shared insights and remarkable generosity. The past three days literally felt like weeks, and I knew I’d continue to revel in the light they’d helped shine on our project for quite some time.
Thursday March 10 - Mark in Radovish, Macedonia
We awoke to a clear sunny day (me, an hour early yet again - forgot about the time change) and enjoyed a morning coffee before packing up and saying goodbye to our host. Today I anticipated the routine, so I felt much more prepared when we reached the Forest Enterprise Branch office for the Radovish district to meet with the regional director. The branch office here was considerably more modest than that of Strumitca - the director only had 3 phones strewn about his desk.
We made small talk while someone fixed us coffee and the director took a few minutes to personalize leather-bound notebooks as a gift for each of us to remind us of our visit. He was a very eager man, lots of energy and enthusiasm - and for some strange reason, he seemed to take a liking to me. Though he spoke no English, I learned a fair bit about the context of the forests in this part of Macedonia. Covering a total of 40,000 ha (36,000 state owned, 4000 private), their regional forests are divided into 7 units. About 11,000 of these hectares are high forest, 22,000 coppice and 8000 shrubland. In addition to their development and administration of management plans for state forests, they assist private owners to manage planning, marketing, and felling operations. If private landowner has more than 100 ha, they must develop a management plan. This is relatively rare though as most private forests average about four hectares in size.
Here most of their forests are beech. They cut about 30,000 m3 annually, 20,000 in firewood which is about 50/50 oak and beech, and 10,000 m3 worth of beech logs for lumber. In this region they afforest (plant) about 30 hectares each year, again typically in gaps within forested lands. Since 2008, they’ve planted out 250 hectares in primarily Robinia, Quercus, Fraxinus, Aesculus (horse chestnut), Pinus nigra, and Acer pseudoplatanus, all of which will be managed as high forest. They focus their plantings within headwater zones for erosion control in response to flash flood events in previous years.
Like most of the country, the region was under the rule of the Turkish empire for 500 years, during which huge areas were cut and used. Historical accounts from the15th,16th, and 17th centuries state that most of Macedonia was then covered in coniferous forest. Today, there's less pressure on the forest from people and animals, so much so that since 1945, forest area in Macedonia has about doubled thanks to forestry, urban migration and reduced human impact
Our field trip in Radovich took us up into the mountains to explore the beech stands there. At the mid-elevation slopes we found forests with a similar stand structure as those of the previous day - oak/juniper on overgrazed lands and primarily oak on the non-grazed lands. We stopped briefly to observe an oak stand that was clearcut 15 years ago. They said that before the cut, the trees were relatively low quality and stunted. A few individuals were left near the road demonstrating their size and quality or relative lack thereof. Today, the 15 year old coppice regrowth is about 30’ tall, virtually the same size as the uncut stems near the road. A testament to the invigorating effects of vegetative reproduction.
At our second stop, we looked at a beech-dominated stand cut 25 years ago. This stand also included some scattered birch (Betula alba) as well as some pine and Doug fir which were planted in an attempt to diversify stand structure and species. The forest managers are somewhat concerned that the shade-tolerant Doug fir may cause a problem in the future if it is able to effectively establish itself from seed, as it will likely outcompete the pine, beech and birch. Time will tell.
Next we took a look at another coppiced stand of sessile oak (Quercus petraea) which they plan to continue to manage as coppice. Apparently, they thin the stand after about 30 years of regrowth, reducing the number of poles on each stool by half, from about 7 stems to 2,3 or 4. This thinning works because the material harvested is useful as fuel and thus provides payback for the operation.
Finally, we looked at some relatively mature beech coppice of which there are about 8000 ha total. At the higher elevations, between about 1000-1300 m, we reached a 3000 ha uneven-aged beech high forest. This hasn’t been coppiced and will likely continue to remain as such. These high elevation forests feature relatively deep snowpacks and compromised access. Because they aren’t managing them as coppice, they do most of their felling and extraction from May-August. They usually have some snow cover by September. These beech stands are quite productive, yielding around 200 m3/ha.
Our field trip culminated at a house/hall built by the local Forest Enterprise Branch amidst the beech high forest around 1300 meters. Here we enjoyed the long views and then retreated indoors for a celebratory meal where we were joined by 10-15 forest workers who seemed to live and work in these upland forests. It was quite a cultural event that spanned several hours. It was almost as if the platters of salad, meat, cheese and bread responded just like coppiced broadleaf trees - every time they were cleared, they came back full as ever. Our hosts finished the afternoon with loud, joyful celebratory song, none of which I understood, but they seemed to be well known local tunes dear to their hearts. What a full and wonderful cultural experience.
We eventually found a way to politely slip away from what appeared like it might be an all day affair and descended the mountain. From here, Pande, Ljupcho and I were to head to Macedonia’s capital Skopje and Tzvetan and Georgi back to Bulgaria. We bid each other appreciative adieu’s and went our separate ways. I truly look forward to continuing our friendships and feel amazingly fortunate to have been able to connect with such wonderful, brilliant people.
The landscape changed dramatically as we headed northwest, soon enough giving way to lower rolling hills almost completely devoid of tree cover. These drylands were likely once forested, but the legacy of intensive land use and overgrazing now bear a completely different landscape that supports agriculture, despite the saline soils and very limited water reserves.
I’d made a connection on-line with a kind couple in Skopje who are actively interested in Permaculture and were willing to host me for a few days. I got dropped off just around the corner from their house and we headed out for dinner to get to know one another. I still had one day of Macedonian coppice-related site tour to go….
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.
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.