In late March, European media attention was focused on Slovakia’s elections. So was the attention of Slovakian NGO WOLF – possibly for different reasons.
In 2007, Slovakia registered its primeval beech forests as UNESCO World Heritage sites – sites that do double duty as EU Natura 2000 sites. Little protective action has taken place in the decade since, however, and the sites are under constant threat from logging and forest fragmentation due to the development of new infrastructures such as roads or ski resorts.
That might all be set to change.
Showing that the populist tide can be turned, on 30 March 2019 Slovak citizens elected their first-ever female president Zuzana Čaputová, a liberal lawyer and anti-corruption activist, in a runoff against European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič. In the past, Čaputová has been supportive of ‘untouched wilderness’ projects such as those proposed by WOLF.
WOLF has been pushing the Slovakian government to dedicate more than 10 per cent of the national territory to “wilderness”– a strict non-intervention area, untouched by logging or human use – while this is still possible. To achieve its purposes, the Slovakian NGO has been buying forested areas to keep these ‘untouched’, and is encouraging the government to turn these into protected areas. With Čaputová as president, the protective designation now seems possible.
Forest protection in Slovakia must also go hand in hand with the respect and the implementation of UNESCO and Natura 2000 rules, however, and this has been problematic.
Slovakian UNESCO sites include one component in the Vihorlat mountains, which is a forested and extinct volcano, and three in the Poloniny National Park. The latter is also part of the East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, designated as an area of global importance under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme.
Yet ten years after listing them as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, about 67 per cent of the Slovak UNESCO sites are not protected; only six per cent of Vihorlat’s endangered site is strictly protected. Two thirds of these protected areas are thus threatened by extensive logging activities.
Unfortunately, that is not the only threat to the primeval beech forests. Hunting also continues – even of wolves – the great keepers of a healthy forest ecosystem – despite the fact that Poloniny National Park and its surrounding areas are also registered under Natura 2000, and wolves, among many other species, have protected status.
Furthermore, the development of a new border road with Poland and a possible new ski resort in the protected Vihorlat area are threatening these natural forests. Should these projects move forward, the resulting permanent deforestation would have a considerable impact on the environment. The proposed ski resort would be built less than 2,000 meters above sea level. With climate change, chances of having a sufficient layer of snow are small, while the use of artificial snow would contaminate both land and water. Wildlife protected under Natura 2000 and the Birds and Habitats Directives would flee or disappear from the area, a conclusion drawn from similar experience in Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park, where construction caused irreversible damage.
As Poloniny National Park also holds a European Diploma for Protected Areas, experts of the Council of Europe assessed that plan in 2017, and slammed it for lacking “a vision and statement which presents how the European interest of the area as well as its outstanding universal value will be preserved in the long term”; they also found that the plan failed to elaborate targeted operational objectives and concrete measures to meet goals.
Slovakia’s new president’s record is supportive of forest and more broadly wilderness protection. As she finds her bearings in her new role, it is hoped that Zuzana Čaputová will work closely with civil society in the fight for the protection of the last European primeval forests.