Geography and forests – not necessarily a "finger across the map" journey

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The history of economic development can be described briefly as subsequent stages of domination of agriculture, industry, services, and modern technologies. This sequence has been a major factor in shaping the changes in land use throughout the world, including the changes in forest area. If we add forces of nature, politics, and human value systems, we will obtain the full image of complex driving forces of landscape change. Is it possible to determine where and when each of these factors has played a major role? Can we determine the role it will play in the future?

In ancient times, transformations of European forests were mainly triggered by climate changes. In current climatic conditions, forests should occupy nearly all of Poland. However, in the last several thousand years, humans have reduced the area of forests, first by expanding arable lands and pastures, and then by exploiting them to meet the needs of the developing industry. In the last two hundred years, as a result of technological revolution and demographic changes, human influence on the landscape has increased. This does not mean, however, that climatic changes became completely insignificant. So, what forces have influenced the surrounding landscape? What changes and related consequences should we expect in the near future? Geographers from the Jagiellonian University are attempting to answer these questions through research on the changes in land use. The research mainly focuses on the Polish Carpathians, which are a naturally and culturally valuable region with hundreds of years of history, and which are quite a popular tourist destination. In their work, scientists are using a wide range of data: archive maps, old photographs, statistical data, aerial imagery, satellite imagery, and laser scanning.

Humans and the mountains

Land use changes are a cross-cutting theme that extends across areas of both environmental and social sciences. In order to understand land use changes, they need to be examined from various perspectives. We also need to learn about the specificity of the location where these changes take place and about the social and cultural context of the change. Such changes rarely occur in a steady, linear way. They are instead of an erratic nature and are characterized by diverse spatial patterns. For example, as a result of a difficult economic situations and population growth, the settled and cultivated zone in the Carpathians moved to higher elevations, from previously developed, easily accessible, and climatically privileged areas to areas less beneficial for human activity. "In the second half of the 19th century industry became more important and, additionally, railroads reached the mountains, which gave an impulse for further landscape changes. For example, during the dynamic development of railroads, i.e., in the period from 1851 to 1885, the number of sawmills in Galicia increased from 122 to 710. This enables us to imagine the scale of changes that occurred at that time," explains Jacek Kozak, coordinator of the FORECOM project focusing on mountain forests.

Changes in land use are not only a domain of the past. They still take place, but often too slowly for us to realize the effects they cause in the surrounding landscape. Nowadays, as a result of rapid social and cultural transformations, mainly the growing mobility of the population, the directions of land use changes in the Carpathians are completely different than they used to be in the past. Agriculture is no longer the main source of sustenance, and forests are still more often encroaching on formerly agricultural lands. Also, newly developed land around settlements occupies increased amounts of area of the Carpathians. It is worth noting that many mountain ranges in Europe are marginal areas, abandoned in the past or currently depopulating, which limits their potential future development. Some of these regions, however, are quite affluent. Revenues generated from tourist services, for example, can support unprofitable agriculture, with a primary aim of preserving the cultural heritage. The Polish Carpathians will face similar developmental dilemmas in several decades: Will they be covered mainly by poorly populated areas where forest expansion will erase the characteristic mosaic of arable land, pastures and forests? Will these mountainous areas be dominated by thriving, expansive tourist centers? Or, finally, will a compromise be reached in the Carpathians to balance the needs to preserve valuable cultural heritage, natural values, and development opportunities for inhabitants? Preliminary research results prove that forest area in the Carpathians continue to grow. It is increasing particularly quickly in areas located in higher parts of the mountains or on steep slopes. As Carpathian towns and villages are simultaneously expanding, the open spaces that would allow us to admire the Carpathian landscape are disappearing.

Zawoja, view from Mokry Kozub to the east – 1962-2009.
Photo on the left: Jerzy Pawłowski, courtesy of the Archives
of Babiogórski National Park. Contemporary photo: Dominik Kaim

Priceless maps

In the course of research conducted by a team supervised by Jacek Kozak from the Institute of Geography and Spatial Management of the Jagiellonian University, scientists from Kraków, in cooperation with scientists from Central Europe, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, are attempting to discover how rapid social, economic, political and cultural change have shaped the Carpathian landscape in the last two hundred years. "It is worth noting that apart from the Carpathians only few regions of the world have such a long series of homogenous, detailed military maps that enable a thorough analysis of the changes in land use. These maps were created in the Habsburg Empire beginning at the end of the 18th century and were characterized by an unusual degree of accuracy for that period. At the same time, the analyzed area was the theatre of two world wars, the fall and rise of new states and even political systems during that time. All this was reflected in changes in landscape and land use and thus influenced numerous natural processes," Jacek Kozak states.

Another area of focus of the research conducted by the team is the comparison of changes in forest areas in the Polish Carpathians with similar processes in the Swiss Alps, connected with an attempt to forecast changes in the near future. The Alps and the Carpathians are the largest mountainous regions in Europe. Their height and economic potential are different, but their inhabitants share similar problems, in particular in the context of the climate change. Mountains are not only tourist resorts. They also (or maybe first of all) serve as water towers for lowland areas. They are also habitats of numerous species of fauna and flora. Forests play a key role in both these cases. Thus, the conclusions of the research will be of great importance for all of society, not only for people who live and work in mountainous areas.

Forest cover change research is more than just comparing materials and drawing conclusions. Various interesting methodological aspects are also an important aspect of the studies of geographers. When comparing the location of forests in the past, in various mountain regions, it is worth asking a series of fundamental questions: What is a forest? What used to be a forest in the past, according to various maps, surveys or statistics, versus what is a forest now and how do these differences affect the correct recognition of changes? What possibilities are offered by modern technologies, for example: what additional information can be obtained observing forests in infrared light, using radar data or laser scanning? How do modern methods of computer spatial data modeling influence the results of the analyses, such as forecasts of future changes in forest areas or advanced statistical models linking such changes to biodiversity? These questions refer to a fundamental issue: To what extent can we learn about the world using such an imperfect tool as a map? These studies require not only knowledge, but also imagination, because, as Albert Einstein said: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."

Research team: Monika Dobosz, MSc, Eng.; Agnieszka Gajda, MSc; Dominik Kaim, PhD; Natalia Kolecka, PhD, Eng.; Jacek Kozak, PhD; Małgorzata Luc, PhD; Krzysztof Ostafin, PhD; Katarzyna Ostapowicz, PhD; Aneta Szablowska-Midor, MSc; Mateusz Troll, PhD; Professor Zbigniew Ustrnul; Agnieszka Wypych, PhD