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The Mionší Virgin Forest: Its Past and Present
Posted by: Otto Hauck in de-ale lui Otto Hauck
The Mionší Virgin Forest: Its Past and Present
Very few protected natural landscape regions in the Czech Republic have generated such a degree of printed commentary as the Mionší virgin forest in the Beskydy mountains. One reason is that the original forest cover has survived over a relatively large area, and that its structure is very close to that of the natural forest that grew here from the beginning of time; another is that its beauty saved it from destruction and attracted the attention in words and images of authors and poets from as far back as the past century. The reason for the survival of this ancient forest up to the present day has been its isolated location. This natural wonder of the Silesian section of the Moravian-Silesian Beskyd range stands at the heart of the watershed of the small river Lomná, on a mountain ridge surrounded by a wreath of long forested peaks over a kilometer in elevation. In the past, when only a dirt track wound through the valley of Lomná, and the trees felled in the mountains could only be removed along these rough trails or by water, the transport of wood was more than difficult. In the most distant corners, wood was often processed directly on the spot, mostly for little more than firewood. Moreover, through the cottagers’ raising of cattle, the forests and clearings suffered from over-grazing. By the early 18th century, large sections of the forest were already destroyed. The majority of the slopes in the Beskydy were covered with a sparse scrubby forest and ever-growing areas of clearing, among which rose the remnants of the original virgin forest. By the middle of the century, though, after the issue of a declaration by the Empress Maria Theresa, a change ensued: management of the land became more far sighted, and the destroyed forests were artificially revived. The newly created forests, though, were usually created through the planting of spruces in place of the original beech, fir and other trees. It was then that the Beskydy lost their original form and gained an entirely new one, which lasts up to the present day.
The original forests, though, fortunately did not vanish altogether. One of them is the Mionší forest. As we aproach it from the town of Jablunkov, a view opens onto an elongated high ridge, where above the crowns of the decidous trees rise the high masts of firs. Walking through this 170-hectare reservation, the visitors enters into an island of hardwood forest in a sea of cultivated spruce, an example of the original forest and the last remnants of the wilderness.
The strongest impression here is caused by massive ancient fir, beech and maple trees. No whit less affecting are the torsos of the fallen giants of the forest, the trunks left broken or overturned. One particular feature of Mionší is the presence of the white fir, rising to over fifty meters high and up to four hundred years in age- the last Mohicans of the region, found nowhere else in the Czech Republic. For this fact, we can thank to Antonín Haunold, a forester from Lomná, and his interest in preserving the original Beskydy forest as an example for future generations of foresters. In 1895, with the support of František Ambros, the forestry administrator in Istebná, he convinced the last private owner of the “Teschen Chamber”, Archduke Friedrich of Hapsburg, to protect the forest in the tracts of Mionší, Polom, Tatínky and Roztoky v Lysé. Today, thanks to his efforts, we have something truly worthy of respect, nor it is necessary to travel abroad to view the rightfull mixed fir-beech forest of the Carpathians. Antonín Haunold always referred to the forest reserve as the “sanctuary” and managed it piecemeal and selectively to form a mixed growth of fir, beech and spruce with scattered maples and elms.
At one time, the Mionší forest was a popular location for hunting grouse. For this purpose, a wooden hunting lodge was constructed here in 1904 for Archduke Friedrich, sensitively situated in one of the forest clearings known by the moravian dialect term of “polana”. Still standing today, the lodge is known informally as “Marquis Gero’s cottage”. The archduke was a passionate hunter and garnished thousands of feathered and antlered quarries in his lifetime: for this bloodthirsty pastime as a metaphor for the Hapsburg policies of Germanization, he was termed “Marquis Gero” in the “Silesian Songs” of twentieth-century poet Petr Bezruč, after the oppressor of the Slavs in the 10th century.
From its founding as a protected forest, Mionší has held two divergent functions. For one, it was to serve as a model example of traditional forest cover, yet at the same time to be protected area for wild game. Even today, the results of these two functions are visible; fortunately the forest remains relatively intact, and is now a paradise for naturalist in many fields. Since the reservation spreads across the peak of Velká Polana (883 m above sea level), its trees grow on slopes facing in all direstions. Moreover, it stands at the interface between two geological areas: the north is created from layers of Godula sandstone, while the south is formed from Istebná sediments. To the south of the reservation, the eastern slope of the highest point, the peak of Úplaz (950 m above sea level), is formed by the sources and tributaries of the Mionší brook. Here, the forest landscape is particularly wild and romantic. If we look closer at the composition of its forests, we find that the basic type of vegetation is the fertile beech and spruce forest, covering much of the territory. We find the three most typical species of flora for the Carpathian forest: the yellow blossoms of sage, and the sticky purple flowers of the glandular toothworth and figwort. One particularly bizzare sight is that of the old sycamore maples, whose bark is formed from fine scales. Perennial honesty is one of the most prevalent herbs in the forest, though among the sycamore maples it is replaced with ferns. Along the cliff-faces of the Mionší brook stand mountain maples, and massive forest maples in their shadow. On the rubble slopes, conditions are good for wide carpets of touch-me-not balsam, or white butterbur and other moisture-loving plants in the marshy areas. At the peak of Úplaz, spruce enters the forest, and is also found at the other, northern end in the Nižní Polana area.
The spatial divisions in the forest, and the variety of ages and species in different biotopes, forms a highly favourable environment for wood-eating fungus. Indeed, they form a highly important component of the mycological layer of the ecosystem, leading mycologists to regard the forest as one of the most important localities in the entire Czech Republic.
As diverse as the flora is, so is the fauna. The many species of mushrooms play host to many rare species of insects. For instance, on the impressive coral fungus, which adorns the trunks of dying fir trees in the autumn, we find the uncommon ant-nest beetle; the red banded polypore supports various species of moths; and in the wood of rotten firs live the stag beetle (Ceruchus chrysomelinus Hochw.) In damp weather we can find such amphibians as the spotted newt, or in the forest pools even the rarer Alpine newt. The many hollow trees in this untouched forest provide nests for many owls, such as the severely endangered Ural owl, and woodpeckers, among them the critically endangered three-toed woodpecker and the white-backed woodpecker, the largest of the genus, only found in the Czech territory in the Carpathians. Up until the 1970s, it was still possible to see capercaillie. Occasionally, a bear, wolf or lynx wanders across the border from Slovakia. One numerous inhabitant of the mountain forests is the Carpathian stag, which likes the peace and abundant vegetation.
In the most recent decades, a chief focus of scientific interest has been the silver fir, more precisely the reason for its disappereance. In the Czech Republic, the fir is primarily a tree of the mountains. In Mionší, the average annual temperature is 4.6°C and annual precipitation up to 1200 mm, forming ideal conditions for the fir. Within the reservation, much of the soil is a rich ochre forest earth rich in minerals, allowing the oldest firs to reach an age of up to four centuries. Moreover, several of them have been fertile each year in the past thirty-five years-which makes it surprising that this tree is declining in numbers. Generally, the explanation for the decline is through a combination of several negative factors. First, for nearly two centuries, the region has been subjected to the industrial emissions from the nearby Třinec coal basin, with the start of the disappereance of fir trees first noticed a hundred years ago. Additionally, a fall in the height of ground water has caused the trees to suffer from drought. Even though the stock of trees is growing younger, it is equally true that all types of young conifers are at great danger of being eaten by herbivorous mammals. Finally, the fir cannot stand up against the competition of the beech, and the massive piles of beech leaves in the autumn are far from ideal for it. As a result, current forestry work is devoted primarily to the protection and strengthening of the threatened population of firs. Fir seedling are individually fenced off, as well as their mother trees. During the 1970s, two fenced trial plantings of several hundred firs were created in the clearings; until recently, these protected young trees were the only representatives of the younger generation in the forest.
At one time, the forest was accessible to the public, and in 1969 a marked hiking trail was formally opened, consisting of three separate routes. However, massive tourism has a negative effect on such environments, and the forest was clearly suffering from the many visitors. The high human presence was a thorn in the side of environmentalists and foresters, and brought about the decision twenty years later to close the path entirely.
The beauties of the forest have long atracted artists, in particular photographers. In 1930s, Rudolf Janda was among the first to discover the enchantment of this unique landscape, and presented it to the wider public in 1943 in the book “Virgin Forest in the Beskydy”. A second book, entitled “Our Virgin Forests” and published in 1950, depicted not only Mionší but many other such environments.
Starting in the 1950s, the Mionší forest was a favourite destination of the great photographer Josef Sudek. Particularly of note are his many photographs of dying trees; taken from the Fifties until the Seventies, they were eventually combined into the open cycle “Vanished Statues”.
In the wake of Janda and Sudek, many other natures photographers have documented – and continue to document – this unique forest. The changes over time to the Mionší ecosystem, in other words, have been captured on film for at least eighty years. Much has changed over this time, particularly the shift from mixed beech-fir growth to purely beech forest, but the beauty of nature has not disappeared, and remains unchanged.
Mionší is easily the equal of similar virgin forests elsewhere in the world. A compelling justification of this view was offered by Rudolf Janda in the visitors’ book in the Mionší lodge (dated April 5 and 6, 1975): “But there is a question: how does Mionší stand up in comparison with other reserves, whether Czech, Moravian or Slovakian? And how is on the international scale? Let us try for an answer.”
“In Czechoslovakia, compared with the most important reservations of Boubín, Bílá Opava, Poľana, Dobroč, the slopes of Mt. Kriváň and the Stužica river, I would place Mionší in one of the first three places, and directly in first place for its beauty, for its strange, hard-to-describe enchantment, that captivating mixture of joy at the growth and sadness at the death of these beautiful silver firs. Definitively, though, in first place for its interest, since Mionší is a true natural muzeum, containing all stages of how a natural forest arises, struggles for survival, is destroyed and renewed again, how fiercely the trees fight for their lives and what complex laws direct everything. In the European scale, Mionší is at least equal to the best remnants in Romania and Yugoslavia. If any of these forest exceeds it in interest, though, I would be doubtful.”
“How, though, does Mionší, this miniature, and so damaged virgin forest, compare to the undisturbed forests of the tropics? I can compare it with three types of forest in Colombia, and I have come to the view that if you can in fact compare forest so different – on one hand permanently green, impenetrable, dark, on the other mixed, park-like, well-lighted – each has its own beauty, is in its own way equal of the other, yet Mionší has the added beauty of spring, autumn and winter. Nor it is any less interesting. I would put it like this: even after the tropical jungles, Mionší did not disappoint me (though I would say about the same about all of our other forest reserves).”
In 2005, we finally awaited, after a long sixteen years, the re-opening of the marked hiking trail in Mionší, if only in much more limited extent. Most of the trail, however runs completely outside the reservation area, and passes around the actual forest for only around six hundred meters. Nonetheless, visitors to the Moravian-Silesian Beskydy mountains will once again have the chance to view the beauties of the forest with their own eyes. By way of coclusion, all that can be wished is for the beauty of the virgin forest to remain intact, and to survive the 21st century as well as it has the previous one.