Monday, March 7 - Sofia, Bulgaria
I woke up feeling rather worn but packed up my things and headed downstairs. Not knowing the town around and leaving too early to partake in the complimentary breakfast at the hotel, I headed straight for the lobby where Ivaylo Velichkov or Ivo greeted me almost instantly. Clearly looking the part of a forester with his stout figure and heavy, forest green attire, we greeted one another and headed out towards his car. Apparently there had been some confusion as I though I was to check out that morning, believing we were setting off on a mini-road trip that would take us beyond the margins of the city. Turns out I could’ve left my stuff there - we were instead planning to do an extended loop around the city visiting the neighboring forests managed by the Bulgarian state. Either way, it was alright, it just meant I’d rushed a bit more than was necessary.
Ivo led me to a compact, well worn, four wheel drive vehicle with a low-center of gravity produced by the Russian automaker Lada. This would more or less be the common means of transport for the ensuing week. While not the best in terms of fuel economy, this rugged little vehicle proves to be nimble, sure footed and up to some very impressive transportational tasks. We drove across town to pick up Tzvetan Zlatanov - my original Bulgarian contact - at his apartment in the city. Tzvetan and Ivo both work for Bulgaria’s Forest Research Institute and I’d come across their work while exploring the research projects undertaken by the multi-national CforSEE project developed by a collective of researchers in Croatia, Austria, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Macedonia.
We quickly made our introductions and set off towards the forested edges of Bulgaria’s capital city. On the way, my two guides brought me up to speed on Bulgaria’s history and the state of their forests today. Bulgaria became a nation 1300 years ago though much of it’s modern history has been spent under foreign rule. After 200 years of Roman occupation, the Ottoman Empire subsequently laid claim to Bulgarian lands from the 15th through 20th centuries. While 85% of the country was forested, today that number is less than 1/2. According to my hosts, about 2-300 years ago their high forests were converted to coppice. Apparently the materials were primarily used to produce fuelwood and polewood for agricultural and viticultural (grape production) needs. This practice continued until communism in the 1940s
In the past, a typical village housed 500-1000 people. In those days, each person had 10-15 goats while some rich families would have up to 1000 sheep. In 1939 Bulgaria had the 4th most developed economy in Europe despite the fact that they had no industry - only forestry and agriculture. Today 70-80% of the nation’s population live in towns - 60 years ago this number was reversed.
From their move for independence in 1878 through 1910, Bulgaria’s forested landscape was extensively cleared. Wars created a steady need for material. Generally speaking, since then, the Bulgarian forests have gone untouched and have since come back largely as coppice. After WWI and II, Bulgaria had to pay reparations to Serbia, Greece and Romania and paid it in wood. The subsequent rise of communism saw the state claim rights to all previously held private land and it wasn’t until 1999 that they began to return this land to the ‘original’ landowners as a process of restitution. This transition also set forth the privatization of the state companies that had once dominated forest management.
Today, small family run companies with modest machinery largely harvest materials from the forested lands of Bulgaria. The conditions in the forests are not suitable for big machinery and the costs of heavy equipment (like a forwarder and harvester - 1,000,000 Euro) make small, scale intensive operations feasible.
In total, 34% of the country is forest. And of this total,
75% is owned by the state
Bulgaria features 16 regional forestry boards, within which they have 174 forest enterprise units. Of a total 3,700,000 ha worth of forested lands, 1,750,000 ha are managed as coppice - 47% of all bulgarian forests.
Erosion was a major problem 100 years ago - extensive plantings of Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) and pine were the solution. Conifers were once rare in Bulgaria. Today Bulgaria has 50% more pine plantations than all of the Balkan states combined. Most of their plantations are 50-60 years old.
Climatically speaking, in the area around Sofia, they receive 600 mm annual precipitation. During the months of July/August/Sept it amounts to about 120-130 mm. The country features a continental climate.
Their primary wood products include timber, fuelwood and charcoal. They export their firewood and Charcoal to Turkey while timber resources generally end up heading to both Macedonia and Greece. Oak and beech are the main species and sometimes exist as mixed stands though oaks are typically found at mid-elevations and the beech tends to reside along the higher slopes. As far as species go, Quercus ceres (Turkey oak), petrea (sessile - the most rot resistant), franeto, pubescens (downy) are the most common oaks.
We started off our trip visiting oak coppice maybe a half hour outside of the city. They forest lay covered in a 10cm or so blanket of snow (4”). I soon realized that I’d likely seen coppice in many more situations than I’d realized during previous visits to Europe. If one doesn’t know how extensively this practice is carried out, it would be easily to remain completely ignorant of it. But conversely, once you learn how widespread forest management via vegetative reproduction (aka coppice) actually is in Europe, it becomes more a matter of picking out the forests that aren’t coppice.
The coppiced oak stands tend to look more scrubby, often thriving on more exposed, dry, rocky, mid-elevation slopes and so their productivity is less than that of strong, fast growing species like chestnut. By the time they reach a more mature age, say 25 years or more, an individual coppice stool is often reduced to between one and four stems. Amidst these early site visit, Tzvetan and Ivo began to Educate me about the state of coppice woodlands in Bulgaria. The basic message was that they are largely viewed as unproductive landholdings, poorly adapted to the economic markets most accessible to state forest enterprise. Most all of the Bulgarian coppice wood is sold as fuelwood, fetching about 50 leva per cubic meter - about $36 per cubic meter or $140/cord. As a result, Bulgarian forest policy towards coppice woodlands is based on the ‘reconstruction’ of coppice stands into high forest with an uneven age and stand structure. Believing that this stand structure is more ecologically stable and will provide higher value yields, they’ve been working to transform these stands for some time now though the actual practice has proven far more difficult than the theory.
There are several ways to shift a coppice forest to a high forest of seed origin (rather than one produced by stump sprouts). One of these is clear cutting, followed by replanting - this system is generally a total loss as the rapid regrowth of the coppice stools outcompetes planted seedlings and has a very low success rate. Also, attempts to completely change species during replanting efforts often prove unsuccessful because they may have overlooked the stand productivity potential or its relative ability to produce quality logs of a particular species.
Another strategy, shelterwood thinning, involves a process where the stand is heavily thinned, leaving perhaps 10-20% of total forest cover in the highest quality individuals (or patches of individuals) who will serve as seed stock to help repopulate the stand. Shelterwood cuts typically involve two interventions, during the second of which (when the seedling trees have reached 50cm (20”) in height), the seed trees are removed completely, thereby ‘releasing’ the seedlings to form a new stand of seed origin. This practice can often be effective but it is a very intensive treatment that citizens often find shocking and also typically results in an even aged stand structure - all of the trees representing a single age class. On a less intensive scale, they often thin oak coppice regrowth so as to encourage the quality of the subsequent polewood, but the relative lack of light creates problems for effective seed regeneration
Tzvetan believes that patch cuts are likely the most ecological forest reconstruction strategy. Instead of removing most of the forest and leaving only a few select individuals or patches, patches of trees are cut, still leaving swaths of the forest in tact. This more concentrated disturbance has a less dramatic impact on total forest ecology, encouraging considerable change in small areas while maintaining continuity within the forest on a larger scale. Patch cuts should usually be at least 1.5x the height of the dominant trees in the stand so as to ensure enough light penetrates the patch to encourage healthy seedling growth. This is especially important for species like oak and pine which are especially light demanding.
Overall, Tzvetan recognizes that the lack of early release treatments (thinning in overstocked forest stands) is the biggest problem facing Bulgarian foresters as it results in lower overall productivity in the long term. Early release treatments require considerable planning and investment at phases in forest growth that sometimes prove to be modestly economical at best. Because of this, it’s often difficult to muster up financial support for these undertakings despite the fact that a few early and mid-stage interventions would have significant effects on the quality and subsequent value of the sawlogs that the stand ultimately yields. In the end, what we find is that there’s no one magic bullet and though the vision and intention may be clear in the forester’s mind, without the energy or finances (often synonymous) available to bring about these changes, we see no net result in forest management.
We snaked along through steep mountain roads, stopping to visit and examine several more stands before lunchtime. One of these - an oak coppice stand that’s in the process of conversion to a mixed stand to include black pine. Another, a 50 or so year old beech coppice stand with individual stools having been thinned down to a single stem, producing 10” or so diameter polewood for fuel. As we dropped down into the neighboring valley, Ivo pointed out a large clearcut on a mountain face off on the horizon. We noticed vertical running bands of dark and light that almost appeared to be ski trails. Much of this stand was cut by villagers, who for each of extraction, chose to orient the remaining brushwood vertically up the slope to facilitate the conveyance of their harvested polewood downhill. Unfortunately, this not only misses a crucial opportunity to slow water and soil as it’s washed down the hill by wind and water, but it accelerates these erosional processes, removing the little precious topsoil left on the overworked hillsides.
We dipped off the road a mile or so up to get a closer look. On the way we passed through an old wood pasture full of poplar pollards that I managed to snap a few photos of. We reached the end of the most reasonably accessed portion of the road that still offered us a solid vantage point of the hillside and stopped to examine three different coppice treatments exhibited on three overlapping hillsides (attempted reconstruction of coppice stand to high forest after planting; recent clear cut stand; heavy-handed shelterwood cut, thinning the stand to provide parent material to disperse seed stock within the gaps).
On our way to a nearby village for lunch, we took a short detour to examine a hillside that had been largely colonized by the exotic Carpinus orientalis - a shrubby hornbeam species, looking very similar in the stem form to Ostrya virginiana (sinuous polewood resembling muscles). Very opportunistic and tolerant of shade, this species today resides on some 200,000 hectares and has made it difficult to maintain the homogeneity of the oak coppice that once dominated. Fortunately, the dense wood still proves to be a useful fuel despite the fact that its multi-stemmed form results in many small diameter stems.
We wound around the hillside where we went on to examine a few remote Bulgarian villages that Tzvetan and Ivo explained were today largely uninhabited. The hills which bore the scars of generations of wood extraction and overgrazing are now finally succeeding back to forest though it will take a long time for them to reach a restored vigor in the wake of all of their historical overuse.
It was eerily disheartening to roll through theses largely deserted hamlets. We stopped above one and headed off on foot to explore some of the crumbling houses and outbuildings up close. May of them constructed of a small diameter timber frame atop a stone foundation. The earthen plaster was largely cracked and crumbling revealing a riven wattle and daub framework underneath. Their remaining small diameter polewood rooming members were in clear view, topped by fired clay ties. Most of these materials still retained their legacy as products harvested from traditional coppice management.
As we examined the buildings, a woman approached us and asked what we were doing. Tzvetan explained and she told us, ‘The young people have left, the old people have died. There’s no one left. We continued ahead in a somber mood, exploring another deserted barnyard where a fallen roof had crushed an old earthen bread oven despite the fact that the wooden peel still sat adjacent to it. Despite all of the investment in infrastructure, terracing, soil building and community development, it appeared as if these villages were left to the ravages of time and nature to return to the earth from which they came. I felt fortunate to have a chance to humbly explore them but sadden to know that they were largely left as a relic of a simpler time.
We found a village soon enough where we could buy some bread, sausage, cheese and halva (a sweet derived from ground sesame seeds). We pulled off the road at a developed community spring where we ate our lunch in the misty gray of the afternoon and set off for our final stop of the day.
Ivo, the soft spoken forester turned researcher and ace forest road driver was set to bring us to a forest he’d been working to actively convert from oak coppice to high forest. Once having managed a large private forestry operation with dozens of employees, he’d chosen to forego the immense stress and responsibility of keeping so many people active and busy, managing multiple jobs at once and instead take a position with the Forest Research Institute. Not exactly a scientist by training, he’s finding his way along with his colleagues but brings an invaluable practical insight to his work which ultimately strengthens the team as a whole.
We dipped off the highway onto a muddy forest road that seemed to deteriorate in quality by the minute. Steep grades, deep ruts, wet spots and occasional modest snow cover called for a skilled and confident driver and Ivo proved well up to the task. Even when we had to back up to retrieve his muffler as it was sharply removed by a high rock, Ivo set to changing into the mechanic’s clothes he’d brought along so as to replace the missing piece while Tzvetan and I looked at the oak coppice all around.
It seemed that here, they were in the midst of an effective high forest conversion though it was one that would require at least one other release treatment along the way if it were to be truly transformed. Having proscribed a thinning that reduced stand volume to 100m3/ha, Ivo had marked the trees that were to be cut at breast height with spray paint and with a axe notch at the base. Because the state doesn’t execute their forest thinnings, the double marking system allows them to ensure that the forest managers they do contract honestly remove only marked trees. When considering which trees to remove, one looks for several factors. Crown density, quality of the stem (especially in relation to the other trees around it and including straightness, diameter, knots, crown form) and the species and their relative value..
Though again, this wasn’t exactly the type of information I was actually in search of, I found the details to be very useful in that they also inform the primary considerations a landowner should be aware of when looking to do the exact opposite - convert their high forest into coppice.
From here we made our way back to the city of Sofia as snowflakes fell while the evening hours crept ever closer. And this all on a Monday!