Date Published: January 23, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Tomasz Samojlik, Anastasia Fedotova, Tomasz Niechoda, Ian D. Rotherham, Berthold Heinze.
Studies of past forest use traditions are crucial in both understanding the present state of the oldest European forests, and in guiding decisions on future forest conservation and management. Current management of Poland’s Białowieża Forest (BF), one of the best-preserved forests of the European lowlands, is heavily influenced by anecdotal knowledge on forest history. Therefore, it is important to gain knowledge of the forest’s past in order to answer questions about its historical administration, utilisation, and associated anthropogenic changes. Such understanding can then inform future management. This study, based on surveys in Belarussian and Russian archives and a preliminary field survey in ten forest compartments of Białowieża National Park, focuses on culturally-modified trees (CMTs), which in this case are by-products of different forms of traditional forest use. Information about the formation of the CMTs can then be used to provide insight into former forest usage. Two types of CMTs were discovered to be still present in the contemporary BF. One type found in two forms was of 1) pine trees scorched and chopped in the bottom part of the trunk and 2) pine trees with carved beehives. A second type based on written accounts, and therefore known to be present in the past (what we call a ‘ghost CMT’), was of 3) lime-trees with strips of bark peeled from the trunk. Written accounts cover the period of transition between the traditional forest management (BF as a Polish royal hunting ground, until the end of the eighteenth century) and modern, “scientific” forestry (in most European countries introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century). These accounts document that both types of CMTs and the traditional forest uses responsible for their creation were considered harmful to “rational forestry” by the nineteenth-century forest administration. Thus the practices which created CMTs were banned and the trees gradually removed from the forest. Indeed, these activities drew the attention of forest administrators for several decades, and in our view delayed the introduction of new, timber-oriented, forest management in the BF.
One of the main requirements for understanding the currently observed state of any natural environment is the knowledge of its history, and especially of past anthropogenic activities. Studying past interactions between humans and the environment is of utmost importance in the case of ancient forests with continual tree cover for perhaps several centuries. One such area is Białowieża Forest (BF), which has persisted in some form since the end of the last glaciation [1–2].
Archival survey and literature search, along with field survey, generated information on two forms of CMTs that still exist in BF nowadays and allowed the conceptualisation of one other form of CMT. This latter form is not now present but potentially was there in the forest historically (Table 1).
Two types of CMT were discovered in BF and three identified in historical sources. Based on the results above these were: 1) scorched pine trees chopped in the bottom part of the trunk; 2) pine trees with carved beehives; and 3) “ghost CMTs” of peeled lime. All three can be treated as an evidence of centuries-old, traditional, multi-functional utilisation of the BF surviving well into the era of modern forestry. Modified trees are not the only case of historical, low-intensity forest use since cattle pasturing, for example, was present in the forest until the mid-twentieth century . The most widespread type of traditional use in BF, haymaking in meadows and along forest river valleys, persisted even longer, almost to the end of the twentieth century . What is unique in the case of CMTs is that their presence has most probably spanned the process of transition between the traditional and “rational”, modern forest management. Furthermore, the perceived damage they caused may have influenced forest utilisation. Management decisions in the 1840s and 1850s focused on removing modified trees (in official documents described as “damaged” or “spoiled”) from the forest and prohibiting the local use that created them; now evidenced as CMTs. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this hindered introduction of modern forestry, but it certainly postponed some clear-cut felling highlighted in subsequent forest management plans (the first produced by 1846) [54, 55].