Objavil/a: Janez Božič | 22/10/2013

BIRTH AND DEATH OF A DESERT

At 1848 all Karst was like that.  (Source: https://maps.google.com/)

At 1848 all Karst was like that.
(Source: https://maps.google.com/)

Ever since I remember, I was a forester.  Later in my life I discovered permaculture. Recently I have been earning my living in programmes to protect nature. However, when I was fourteen, I earned my first salary as a forester.

As a student, I was pleased to be studying at the forestry school where we were taught about the most sustainable forest management in the world.  This school also provided an extraordinary link between theory and practice. Three forestry principles: sustainability, blending with the natural environment and economic benefit were the guidelines in Slovenian forestry. All three of them are embedded in the foundations of permaculture.

Sustainability in design, real economic benefit in the process of permacultural planning, and being in harmony with nature is core to the framework of permaculture principles. However, forestry has a specialty. A farmer sows the seeds and before the year turns he harvests; a forester, on the other hand, sows trees which will be harvested by your grandchildren. In forestry, the basic timeline is about 100 years. In this perspective, in forestry sustainability means something different than for most other activities. And another aspect: in permaculture we talk mostly about garden scale or farm scale. Slovenian forestry fulfills all its goals over an area of 1 million hectares.

BIRTH

“How can we ensure a sustainable yield?” was one of the first forestry issues we were taught. When forestry started, foresters used an axe and a horse, so the process of deforestation was not a thing that anyone would notice with the naked eye. But it was not start with an axe. To get knowledge about how we destroyed forest in the past is now possible mainly by studying historical sources. It is said that the first record of forests in Slovenia emerged from the pen (or whatever they were using in their times) of Roman writers who describe Slovenian, probably Karst forests as “extensive oak forests.”

Distant past or the near future? (Foto: Janez Božič)

Distant past or the near future? (Foto: Janez Božič)

If you want to see an oak virgin forest, you may whistle for it! It no longer exists. The best approximation in Slovenia is a small forest reserve  located in “Krakovski gozd”.  You’d have to multiply the thickness of the largest trees at least by three; the height is likely to be approximately right. So oak woods were about 50 meters high and the diameter of the greatest giants was so big that they could not be hugged by an average Slovenian family. But these are only dimensions, how about biodiversity? And some other thinks we usually do not think about it.

Of course other records followed. One of the most interesting that I have heard about was a dispute between the new and old immigrants around pig pasture. Well, so there were still at least a few oaks. It might be worth noting that forestry was not always a base for timber industry, the basic role of the forest has been changing from century to century. Another interesting record of the forests in the area is stored in so-called ‘forest orders’, a kind of forest jurisdiction.

And although Count Ortenburg’s forest order clearly refers to the forest, wood is rarely mentioned. On the other hand, there are a lot of rules about animals, like dormice or birds of prey, for which they carefully prescribed who may collect their eggs, the size of his share, how his share will be determined by the forest owner and who will pay the forester, as well as who will oversee all this.

This was not the oldest forest order; it came out around 400 years after the first ones in 1406. Well, when Josef Ressel was deployed on the Slovenian coast, to plant oaks for the Austro-Hungarian navy, he described this same area, which was around 1000 years ago known as “extensive oak woods,” with only one word. Desert. It was the beginning of the 19th century and the industrial revolution had just begun.

Some parts of the karst still look like a desert. (Source: http://travel.over.net/svet/galerije2/albumi/trzaski-kras/2005_d_0417.sized.jpg)

Some parts of the karst still look like a desert.
(Source: http://travel.over.net/svet/galerije2/albumi/trzaski-kras/2005_d_0417.sized.jpg)

NOBODY NOTICED

In a millennium, the height of “extensive oak forests” thus fell from 50 to 0 meters. How many human generations have passed during this time? Did any of them notice that height of the forest in their time was reduced by, let’s say, 50 centimeters? Answer is yes, but not the whole population, only some individuals. They started to develop forestry planning already centuries ago. Because of those individuals, we can today see a different picture.

In hundred years and something, forest returned to Karst. Well, we must wait a “little more” for oak suitable for building a navy to grow, but it’s a start, and after all we do not use wood for our navy any more. The important thing is that we proved that desertification is not a one way ticket. And most importantly, we know what it looks like.

WE KNOW HOW

This project in Slovenian – at that time Austro-Hungarian – Karst was anything but easy or cheap; nothing went smoothly and if something could go wrong, it went. Ressel, who anchored the whole idea into manageable goals, strategies and actions, died before the first black pine seedling started to grow.

Black pine was not the first choice. One of the first pioneers, chosen by the Karst foresters, was sage. So if you find a habitat of sage in the Slovenian Karst, it is very likely due to effort of foresters who tried to make a desert green.

Only later they chose black pine, an autochthon species, which is known for its adaptability to arid growing conditions. Then it really started. The empress Maria Theresa untied her purse, the village gave some of their common land (of course the worst) to foresters.

A nursery near Vienna started to grow black pines. For each seedling they had to dig a hole in the karst limestone. The diameter of the hole had to be larger than the diameter of the forester’s hat, which was a measure for the size of the hole. When the hat fell smoothly half a meter deep, it was necessary to bring soil (I still wonder from where?), plant a seedling and bring water, probably not just once. Then the forester reached into the purse and paid one florin to a team that achieved this.

The project was not cheap, and when costs were calculated into the current monetary units, an estimate was that forestation of one hectare of Karst area cost around 5,000  €. And black pine started to grow? No way.

They all died. Well, almost all. But definitely so many that they had to plant new ones, and again, and again. Then they tried sowing seeds. This was a little bit more successful. Just enough that they formed a small nucleus of black pine which, as they saw later, was very important.

The first forester who made it was Jože Kolar. A new forest started to grow nearby Trieste (today Italy). The forest reached its maturity years ago and black pine was slowly replaced by pioneer tree species suitable to the area.

However, neither planting nor sowing were what made the Karst green. The most important push to greening the Karst was World War I. Of course, people emigrated from Karst earlier, but World War I was the first of four events that gave black pine the right opportunity.

DEATH

As people emigrated, the forest came back. WW I was followed by the global economic crisis and World War II. All three had a strong influence on people to move away from Karst region. And next came a different event, a planned one.

It’s not like World War I or II were not planned, but this event was designed with the aim of greening deserts in Yugoslavia. That, at least, was what they said, but it is entirely possible that they created the working class and with this measure wanted to empty the poorest parts of the country. The measure was cruel and unjust. The People’s Government banned the breeding of goats. In fact, they should have banned nomadic grazing, but who would supervise that? Therefore, they decided for an incredibly cruel, but feasible measure, which drove the last farming hungry people away from the Karst. And the desert died.

Karst today. (Source: https://maps.google.com/)

Karst today. (Source: https://maps.google.com/)

Today, Slovenian Karst is the second most forested region in a country that is the third most forested country in Europe.  For that we should be grateful!

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