A journey with the bark beetle, and a door into wilderness in Šumava

Šumava National Park celebrated its 30 year anniversary in 2021. In thirty years, society has changed a lot. Healthcare, education and forestry, and of course nature protection. Today, Šumava National Park has a strong focus on wilderness. Giving nature freedom, not interfering in its processes. An approach that is still somewhat debated in the nature protection field, at least when it comes to the question: to what scale should we not intervene?

The spruce bark beetle –  the forest’s engineer 

The spruce bark beetle, with its only a few centimetres, is a major driver of everything happening in Šumava. It transformed the landscape within a few years multiple times, affecting the lives of many animals and people. 

The spruce bark beetle lives in weakened, dying or dead spruce trees. First, the male attacks the tree. Subsequently, with the help of a pheromone, they attract females and mate with them. The females then lay the eggs in the trunk. As the larvae develop, they spend their time feeding between the bark and the wood. The larvae become pupae and their development continues until the adult stage, when they fly out of the tree and attack other trees. This process takes about four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

To act or not to act – this is the question

Man is a creature who likes order. Order in society, order in all aspects of life, always having control creates a sense of security. But nature has no order in our sense of the word, and if we want to effectively protect it, we have to play by its rules.

If you spent your youth visiting forests planted by humans, you may have been accustomed to trees planted nicely in rows, in precise geometric shape. Clearings in a commercial forest are intentional, and are soon replanted again. Damages and diseases must be controlled, the forest must be kept in order and clean. When spruce bark beetles hit commercial forests, foresters must immediately react to prevent spreading. So why should it be different in protected areas, such as Šumava?

In the Bavarian Forest as well as in Šumava, the native spruce is the dominating species of the forests. And consequently, spruce bark beetle outbreaks have fundamentally changed the landscape of this region. In 1984, before Šumava National Park was established, there was a big wind storm in the area, followed by a bark beetle outbreak. Back then, this evoked immediate reaction by foresters at that time, and led to the extraction of half a million spruces. All the sick and dead trees were felled, removed, the clearings were reforested – no damage in sight. At that time, there was no contact with the Bavarian Forest National Park on the other side of the Iron Curtain, who was already practising the non-intervention method, and let the forest regenerate naturally.

After the establishment of Šumava National Park in 1991, several further major bark beetle outbreaks took place: between 1993-1998 and in 2007. Foresters working in Šumava, as well as external experts, foresters and activists back in that time were quick to express their opinion on how humans should act, such as ‘The forests need human help. We have to cut down infected trees for the forest to survive, otherwise the whole forest will be gone.’ There was big scepticism towards how the German neighbours handled the outbreaks, and the risk of not acting seemed too big. After every big outbreak, the national park administration was faced with the same question: do they stop the spread of bark beetles, or do they explore where the natural processes lead?

Start of the biomonitoring

After 2007, the National Park administration together with the Ministry of Environment decided to leave an unusually large forest area untouched, and increase the non-intervention zone of the national park from 13% to 24%. The national park started monitoring what is happening to the forest in the non-intervention zone. Experts started monitoring the pace of natural regeneration, the amount of dead wood, changes in populations and composition of species. They found that the natural rejuvenation density was significantly higher than what was planted by humans to aid the forest. In the area of Šumava National Park, 350 million young trees started growing naturally, although only 15 million seedlings have been planted since 1995. 

When you pass through the National Park, you can see the standing dead spruces as white poles reaching high in the sky, reminding us of the majestic, healthy, green spruces that once were in their place. At first glance, one might see only a desolate plain. However, beneath them, there is a growing density of trees that have been patiently waiting for their chance to reach the sunlight. The new forest is in sight.

A dynamic forest wilderness

In the 30 years of the history of Šumava National Park, nature itself and society have shown that they can fulfil the idea of ​​wilderness. It turned out that protecting only a certain image, conserving a specific scenery is not actually possible. Much of human intervention intended as help eventually led not only to the destruction of this scenery, but also its natural life story. As spruce has always naturally prevailed in the forests of Šumava, the bark beetle was always present there as well, shaping the forest. Therefore, spruce bark beetles, together with the other two native bark beetle species, belong to Šumava. And the forests of Šumava have shown that they can do without human help. 

Today, Šumava National Park not only gives space to natural processes, but also encourages its visitors to join this observation of life and death, of at times small and other times grand transformations in the landscape and learn to appreciate the dynamics of nature.

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