“A primeval forest for our children and our children’s children” – Dr Hans Eisenmann – Bavarian State Minister for Agriculture and Forestry
Germany is home to the Bavarian Forest National Park. It is the largest protected and unbroken woodland in Central Europe, comprising of 243km² of densely forested low-mountain terrain. Located in the Southeast corner of Germany, it extends along the Czech border and feeds into the Sumava National Park (the Bohemian Forest) of the Czech Republic.
The Bavarian Forest was declared Germany's first national park in 1970, affirming the forest's importance and sowing the seeds for the 'let nature be nature' woodland management philosophy that was later put into action following a destructive thunderstorm in 1983. This natural disaster uprooted and damaged thousands of spruce trees, and in the wake of its destruction the Bavarian State Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, Dr Hans Eisenmann, along with the first Director of the Bavarian Forest National Park, Hans Bibelriether, made the decision not to interfere or clear the trees and debris, but to allow the forest to naturally rebalance itself. This decision enabled the natural ecology of the forest to regenerate organically and allowed Mother Nature to once again demonstrate her autonomy from human intervention.
The absence of human involvement within the Bavarian Forest has proven controversial, especially with local residents. A prime example of this was during the adverse windfall during the mid 1990s, where many spruce trees were uprooted, again, and left to rot on the forest floor. This is thought to have been the catalyst for a catastrophic infestation of the European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus); their outbreak resulted in a high proportion of tree deaths and sparked an outcry by the local residents.
The locals' concerns were primarily over the possibility of the bark beetles spreading across vast areas of the national park, as well as towards large cultivated areas of privately owned forests outside of the park. The explosion of the bark beetle population – sustained by the abundance of dead, weak, or susceptible trees – spread furiously. So much so that they began to also attack many of the healthy spruces. Under pressure from local residents and land owners, the Park Service responded to the outbreak with preventative measures such as creating buffer zones, where the felling and removal of infected trees was used to help prevent further outbreaks of bark beetles in neighbouring forests.
For centuries prior to the National Park's establishment, the Bavarian forests were subjected to logging and monoculture planting of spruce trees, leaving very little biodiversity; the mostly all-spruce-tree forest, therefore, became susceptible to disease and pests. Usually bark beetle populations will remain modest in size, and they are said to help keep the health of the forest strong by only attacking weak or dead trees. To support the National Park's ethos – 'let nature be nature' – the Park Service has sought to alter the public's perception and improve public awareness on the bark beetle, highlighting the potential benefits of the insect and encouraging people to not view them as pests but as a key part of a healthy forest. As a natural balance re-establishes itself, park officials are now promoting the idea that, on the whole, the forest will grow back much stronger, with trees with a higher resilience to pests and diseases.
The Bavarian National Park is very much a living, evolving and ever changing experiment for forest management. The handover of the woodlands back to Mother Nature may take some time to redress – as shown by the epidemic of the bark beetle – but as Eisenmann advocated, we should appreciate our forests for the natural wonders that they are. •
Jörg Marx's photographs explore the wondrous and atmospheric terrain of the Bavarian National Park. Some of his images bare witness to the tribulations that the landscape has faced due to the bark beetle, but amongst this he has captured an enchanting place; a place where nature prevails.
A photographer living in lower Bavaria, Jörg Marx holds a great affinity to his forest surrounds, using them as the subject of much of his photography.