William Keeton Sabbatical Report: Expedition to the “Lost Valley” of Old-growth in the Carpathian Mountains
- By William Keeton
Forming a great arc through Central and Eastern Europe, the Carpathian Mountains are steeped in myth and legend. Partly because of their history as the frontier between shifting empires, the Carpathians also harbor Europe’s largest and best remaining examples of primary (“virgin” or never cleared) temperate forests. Stands of old-growth beech and spruce-fir can be found tucked away in remote valleys or draping the slopes of isolated massifs. Sometimes prowled by grey wolves, brown bear, woodland bison, and elk, these stands store tremendous quantities of carbon in live and dead biomass, both above and belowground – carbon that would be released to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases if the forests were logged over.
The great Carpathian forest has fascinated me for almost a decade, and sabbatical leave last spring provided a chance to continue long-standing collaborative research with scientists in Europe. I was based at the Institute for Forest Ecology at the Austrian University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (called “BOKU”) in Vienna, where I taught a graduate course on forest carbon science and management. I also helped organize an international conference on Primeval Beech Forests, held in L’viv, Ukraine in early June. Vienna, often called the gateway to Eastern Europe, was the perfect jumping off point for research visits to Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and Ukraine – all partially located within the Carpathian ecoregion.
One of these excursions took me to, perhaps, the most remote corner of the Carpathians, an area along the border between southwestern Ukraine and northern Romania, what I will call the “lost valley of old-growth.” The lost valley is a mosaic of primary spruce and fir stands several thousand hectares in size and recently protected by Ukraine as a core area within Verkkovyniski National Nature Park. It is virtually inaccessible except by several days hiking or transport to a trail head by only the most capable of 4-wheel drive vehicles (and a driver with nerves of steel) up steep mountain ruts.
Working with former UVM visiting Fulbright scholar Dmytro Karabchuk and RSENR graduate student Sarah Ford, I organized an expedition to the lost valley in late May, with the purpose of conducting a rapid inventory and carbon assessment to better understand how forests like this help mitigate climate change. We were joined by a group of Ukrainian forest rangers and park personnel – all knowledgeable, hardworking, friendly, and enthusiastic, but in need of a crash course in forest measurement techniques. Our team got the job done, even enjoying a traditional Ukrainian forester’s lunch in which everyone contributes whatever food they brought along, of course, with the obligatory toasts to camaraderie and good health.
Places like the lost valley give scientists reference systems to compare against landscapes more heavily altered by humans. The data we collected in the lost valley, for instance, will be added to other datasets from around the world in a project called the “Global Analysis of Temperate Old-growth Forests,” the first paper from which was published last spring. Already we are learning how primary forests often do not fit our stereotypes of towering trees in what some have called the “cathedral old-growth.” Rather, these systems are shaped and molded over time by natural disturbances, creating a mosaic of spatially variable architecture, habitats, and functioning. This complexity is intriguing as a guide for sustainable forestry. Can we emulate more closely this variety of ecological conditions on actively managed forest landscapes and would biodiversity and carbon storage benefit as a result? As research at UVM and elsewhere has shown, the answer is yes, but it is only by getting “into the field” to observe reference systems firsthand that we can begin to figure out how.
As the rains came in late on the final day, we hiked out of the old forest, crossing alpine grazing meadows called “polonina” and reaching our staging area near dusk. Cold, wet, and tired, we clambered into the back of a converted Soviet troop carrier, our “ride” into and out of the mountains. This beast requires passengers to stand upright on the flatbed in back, holding onto a metal chain in hopes of not being pitched over the railing as the truck jolts from side to side. The Ukrainian foresters had named our truck “Mama” because that is the last thing you say before it careens off a cliff.
As luck would have it, the engine wouldn’t turn over, and after a long series of failures we resorted to pushing the truck into a slow crawl. The engine finally caught, literally seconds before the truck would have rolled over the side of a gully. Thankful not to be spending the night in the open and in the rain, we began the long trip home to Vermont.