50 years of the National Park: In the heart of the wilderness

50 years of the National Park: In the heart of the wilderness

Eerie, grandiose, repellent – the Bavarian Forest was once considered a lonely region. Nowhere in Bavaria is it colder in winter. Today the wilderness appears as a scarce natural resource and arouses longings.

Eagle owls can only be seen outside the outdoor enclosure in Neuschönau with great luck.

© Sebastian Beck
Eagle owls can only be seen outside the outdoor enclosure in Neuschönau with great luck.

In the heart of the wild

The Bavarian Forest is right back there. Where it can no longer go on. Where it all ends. Where it gets dark. On the border. Motorway exit Hengersberg, then continue on the B 533, Grafenau, Mauth, Finsterau. The End. Continue on foot along the Schwarzbach in the direction of Lusen. If you are looking for what is perhaps the most remote corner of Germany, you will find it here in the forests in the south of the national park. Tree trunks that are meter thick lie crisscrossed on top of each other. Ferns grow between them, rowan berries and dead spruce trees protrude like broken pencils from the thicket. “No network” reports the mobile phone.

If you sit quietly for a few minutes in the last light of the day, you think you hear voices, but it’s only the water that laps the rocks in the stream. A large bird flies up in the forest. Somewhere in the area there is a pack of wolves. It is an eerily beautiful feeling to descend alone in the dark, a privilege in Germany with its 83 million inhabitants.

The Bavarian Forest and especially the National Park are areas for romantics, although there is nothing romantic about them. Yes, the national park has its grandiose moments in every season. But there are also days when the forest stands so bleak in the rain, as if it only wanted to say one thing to the visitors: Sneak out, get away, but quickly! Then you drive back towards Deggendorf, the Gäuboden appears in front of the windshield wipers, with its gigantic industrial halls and agricultural factories, BMW in Dingolfing, the Ohu nuclear power plant, Munich Airport, Garching. Bavarian landscapes of the 21st century.

Painters have never been particularly interested in the Bavarian Forest. It offers no drama like the Wetterstein Mountains or the Königssee. No ravines or remote snowfields. No Dirndl and Lederhosen Bavarians. The forest mountains disappear uniformly on the horizon, between clearing islands and mostly unadorned villages. In the early years of tourism, the Munich city population may have longed for the Tegernsee or Bad Reichenhall, but certainly not for Grafenau or Viechtach. Because back there, poverty raged well into the 1970s.

In the open-air museum of Finsterau you can still guess what depressing existences the people here once led. But if you want to understand the Bavarian Forest and the special atmosphere of the national park, you have to remember them. Because the people and the barren nature entered into a symbiosis here. The writer Siegfried von Vegesack, who has lived in the tower of the Weißenstein Castle near Regen since 1918, has dedicated a poem to the oppressive village atmosphere: “Where the forest begins dark and threatening, the village ducks the Bohemian wind. Like tearful eyes, the Watched for a long time, lights blink blindly into the night. The cottagers crouch sullenly around the sparse, dim flickering flames. Everyone, leaning forward, dulls the sour soup and is silent. Soon the last glimmer in the windows dies Whimper. ”

This forest and mountain region was considered so backward, dark and poor at the time that a Berlin newspaper branded it as the “German Siberia” around 1900. In winter, it has always been colder on the border with the Czech Republic than elsewhere in Bavaria, even today, although spring now begins four weeks earlier than in the 20th century. Once the snow falling en masse was only an additional difficulty in life, which is expressed in many idioms, fairy tales and myths. The author Josef Kyselak described this existential fear a good 200 years ago as follows: “Constantly working through the snow, the fear of slipping down in it or being buried forever, made me so sweaty that I would die at the slightest standstill was afraid of falling. ”

The poet Adalbert Stifter also vividly described such needs, for example in his story “From the Bavarian Forest”, for which he was inspired by a snow catastrophe he experienced himself in 1866. Back then he was snowed in for five days in a country palace. He contrasts the epically described “sublime forest” with the “all-engulfing mixture of impenetrable gray and white, of light and twilight, of day and night” in deep drama, a moving mélange that has burned itself into the general literary memory.

Let nature be nature - that is the romantic idea behind the Bavarian Forest National Park, which attracts more than a million visitors every year. The new wilderness spreads out on the Lusensteig.

© Sebastian Beck
Let nature be nature – that is the romantic idea behind the Bavarian Forest National Park, which attracts more than a million visitors every year. The new wilderness spreads out on the Lusensteig.

Hermann Dieß also tells in his story “The Frozen Boots” from 1904 about the tough but wonderful winter in the Bavarian Forest. During a hike on the Bohemian border, he experiences “immeasurable beauty”, but barely escapes death in the snow. The writers were always able to find something sublime in the sadness of the forest and the wilderness. Vegesack once again: “A poor country, cultivated in hard labor: boulders, stone rubble and barren earth, colored by a dark sea of ​​forests. And yet rich in quiet beauty that even strangers can still be home …” This was also found in the folk song Precipitation view: “Da Woid is schee”, it says there, the forest is dark but beautiful. Hermann Lenz imagined he was in a “sea of ​​spruce tops on the waves of the mountain ranges that lay like animals, huddled together, merged, further out dark blue.”

People have always found these forest mountains to be harder, colder and more mysterious than other areas. Add to this the loneliness that extends from the Arber to the Bohemian region. This aesthetic was certainly completely alien to the population before the eulogies of Stifters and his poet colleagues. And today? Today, the wilderness no longer appears as a threat, but as a scarce resource in a country whose meadows have been “cleaned up” in the past decades, as it is called in the official jargon. That arouses longings. The national park is attracting more and more young people. Especially in the times of Corona, they discover the advantages of seclusion, which creates new problems. National park manager Franz Leibl has recently been dealing with visitors who – as in the Alps – see nature primarily as a kind of sports equipment.

But as huge as the ocean of forests may appear when you stand on the summit of Rachel like the poet Vegesack: The Bavarian Forest National Park remains a tiny island in the middle of the intensely used cultural landscape. If you add the Berchtesgaden National Park, the two protected areas cover just 0.6 percent of the Bavarian area. They are refuges for species that would not have a chance anywhere else. Because the destruction of nature continues unchecked. The many political initiatives could not change this either: Natura 2000, FFH areas, the bird protection directive, biotope network, bee folk petitions – these are just a few key words from the environmental policy discussions of the past decades. At most, the efforts have brought something: lynxes and golden eagles, for example, are now also spreading outside the two national parks.

Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park near Spiegelau.

© Sebastian Beck
Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park near Spiegelau.

Nevertheless, more and more species are on the Red Lists in Bavaria – nine out of ten reptile species alone. Most of the causes of the loss have long been researched: the intensification of agriculture, the large-scale cultivation of energy crops, the loss of small structures such as hedges and fields, the use of pesticides – all of these are listed by the state environmental agency. It therefore seems like a curious contrast when visitors to the Bavarian Forest National Park are on no account allowed to leave the paths, while a few kilometers further the landscape largely disappears under concrete. If you drive on the A 92 motorway, you will see a blatant example of this development: On one side is the Königsauer Moos, where Bavaria’s last curlews are carefully monitored. On the other side, another gigantic logistics hall has just been erected at the motorway exit.

The biologist Hansjörg Küster, author of standard works on the history of the forest and the landscape, therefore wants a fundamentally different approach to the landscape. He considers the national park idea to be good, even if he reminds us that even the seemingly original Bavarian Forest is basically a forest designed by humans. He considers the division into wilderness on the one hand and zones of intensive agriculture on the other hand to be the wrong way: Küster is thinking of expanding the biosphere reserves as in the Rhön. In other words, cultural landscapes that are consciously designed by people in order to offer the greatest possible variety of living spaces.

In practice, however, such attempts are always doomed to failure: the interests of those who own the land are too overwhelming. Hedge and avenue are seen by farmers primarily as a cost factor, they reduce the yield and lower the profit. State interventions have so far been unsuccessful. Even the popular petition for bees has not changed that. The law, which was initially celebrated as the turning point in species protection, is now being supplemented by pressure from the agricultural lobby with so much small print that it can already be predicted: It will bring just as little effect as all the previous initiatives.

The two Bavarian national parks will therefore continue to jut out of the industrial landscape like two solitaires. There is a lack of will and political minds for a real U-turn in nature conservation, especially in the CSU. In any case, the head of the national park, Leibl, cannot think of a prominent CSU environmental politician. It used to be different: people like parliamentary group leader Alois Glück and the member of the Bundestag Josef Göppel deal intensively with environmental issues, not to mention Hans Eisenmann, the founder of the Bavarian Forest National Park. The Ministry of the Environment is anyway run by the Free Voters, who are more interested in “wolf-free zones” than in protecting species.

There will therefore not be a third national park in Bavaria anytime soon, even though the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation came to the conclusion years ago that Germany and Bavaria in particular have an obligation to protect the beech forests. The Steigerwald and the Spessart would therefore be ideal candidates for the next national park in the eyes of Leibl and many other experts. The state government, of course, gave way to the resistance of the peasant lobby. Instead, it donated a further 600 hectares of land to the Bavarian Forest National Park for its 50th birthday, which is already state-owned. A gift that Leibl is only too happy to accept. But the bottom line is that it looks pathetic because it also means that politics in Bavaria is too weak to enforce a third national park.


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