Raising awareness and knowledge about UNESCO Beech Forests among experts

11th September 2020

On Friday, 11th September 2020, Slovenia Forest Service carried out an event aimed at providing knowledge and deeper insights into the outstanding values and challenges with which the UNESCO World Heritage component parts of the ‘Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe’ are faced with. Perhaps in a situation unique to Slovenia, but likely more widespread, it was discovered that outside of the very small circle of experts who have been involved in the preparation of the Nomination Dossier in 2014-2016 and that have been involved in the management of the Slovenian component parts, there is very little knowledge about this World Heritage.

Questions, such as: Why are beech forests special? There is plenty of beech forests, why are these two in Slovenia inscribed on the WH list? Why do they have to be strictly protected, since all forests in Slovenia are managed in a close-to-nature way?, are very common, even among foresters and nature conservationists in the expert institutions that are involved in the UNESCO story. Additionally, the international dimension of this particular WH property is most often almost entirely unknown, with management challenges being equated with those of the only other Slovenian WH natural site in Škocjan Caves. 

In order to address this knowledge gap, BEECH POWER organised an educational and discussion event aimed at the decision makers on national and regional levels, as well as experts from the fields of forestry, nature conservation, and tourism. The event was planned to be carried out in March or early April 2020, which was impossible due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the pandemic is not under control yet, the official public health guidance judges the organisation of events possible, if they comply with a number of preventive measures, which were fully taken into account, thus allowing the implementation of these activities on Friday, 11th September. 

External speakers were invited to lend additional credibility and bring new knowledge for all participants. Professor Robert Brus and dr. Thomas Andrew Nagel came from University of Ljubljana’s Department of Forestry and Renewable Forest Resources, as well as Borut Peric from Regional Park Škocjan Caves. Professor Brus gave a lecture on the development of Fagus  genus and the expansion of beech from glacial refugia across Europe, while emphasising the expansion from the refugia in the North-Western part of the Balkans (also area of both Slovenian component parts), which was supported by genetic studies. He additionally delved into the beech genetics across Slovenia and the differences between the two UNESCO reserves and other beech forests across the country. 

Dr. Nagel focussed on the disturbance theory in old-growth beech forests across the Dinarides and Carpathians and the need for strictly protected forest reserves and their effect on biodiversity. The debate on whether land sparing (segregation) or land sharing (integration) approaches are better for wood production or conservation of biodiversity, calling for at least 5% of forests being under strict protection, which would include also larger forest reserves, and not only a multitude of small fragments. That would, for example, consitute a 5 times increase in the area of Slovenian forest reserves.

Lastly, Borut Peric presented the work of the public institution Regional Park Škocjan Caves, which is managing the only other Slovenian natural WH site for almost 25 years. He demonstrated the changes in visitor numbers after the inscription and the trends in the following years, along the restrictions that they impose on the visitation to assure the preservation of the outstanding value and biodiversity of the area. He also gave an overview of all the activities that they, as a WH manager, undertake. Thus illustrating how far there is still to go before the beech forests in Slovenia will have a well-established management. 

Following, each presentation a lively discussion ensued, which continued into the lunch break. After that the participants were directed to a number of vehicles, that took them to the 45 min distant entry point to the buffer zone of the Virgin Forest Krokar reserve for the field excursion.

The field excursion was used to illustrate in the field the specific challenges that face the WH beech forests in Slovenia and to a certain extent also across Europe. The issues of buffer zones and the standardisation of the regimes, forestry, and visitor pressure were addressed in detail, with so much interest expressed from the participants that the field trip was extended beyond the agenda. Due to the great interest, participants were also taken close to the forest reserve Firštov Rep, where the views along a »stormy« Sea of Forests open up, alongside the views of the cliffs above the Kolpa Valley. On that natural highlight the event ended with participants transported back to Kočevje. 

While a day is by no means enough to transfer the knowledge of all the little intricacies and obstacles that the BEECH POWER project and others closely involved with the WH in Slovenia deal with daily, it did manage to present a much better foundation for future resolving of existing and any new emerging issues, which we are hoping will be invaluably helpful in the future weeks, months, and years.