July 17, 2013

Baxter  Contributes to Emerging Wilderness in Ireland.

In 2010, I received a very enjoyable visit from Bill Murphy, a fellow forester and recreation manager from Ireland.  Bill serves as Head of Recreation, Environment and Public Goods for a Coillte, a semi-state forestry company managing over 1 million acres of State (we would think of it as “National”) forest land in Ireland ( http://www.coillteoutdoors.ie/ ).

Bill Murphy
Coillte (a Gaelic word pronounced roughly, “Queel-cha”) is an unusual entity in itself and a somewhat difficult concept for Americans to understand.  Coillte was established under the Irish Forestry Act 1988, which basically split the forest management segment of what we would define as the Irish Forests Services aside as a separate State-owned commercial company.  This is the amalgam that is hard to define in American terms.  While Coillte looks and acts like a state corporate entity, the company is legally a private[1] limited company registered under and subject to the Companies Acts 1963-86. All of the shares in the company are owned by the State and held by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister for Finance on behalf of the Irish State. The Board of Directors is appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Food.

[1] A “public” company is a company listed on the stock exchange while a “private” company is not – it can be owned by an individual, a family, or in this case the State (Ireland).

Ireland is about 3 ½ times the size of Maine.  Coillte manages 443,000 hectares (equal to a little over 1,100,000 acres) of land, about 7% of the area of Ireland.  While Coillte is focused on managing forests for timber production, it is also very active in encouraging and managing for a wide range of recreational activities on a beautiful landscape that is widely used and dearly treasured by the Irish people.

Over the course of a couple of days, Bill and I spent some time in the Park and discussed a wide range of management issues related to wilderness and recreation management.  Bill’s questions all had a purpose – he had identified a remote and relatively unmodified landscape and he wanted to propose the area be set aside as wilderness.

The concept and certainly the original expression of wilderness as a societal value has its roots in America and is best exemplified by the passage of the Wilderness Act by Congress in 1964.  The much more extensive and long cultural and land use history in Europe makes an expression of wilderness in American terms more difficult.  However, forward thinkers like Bill Murphy and the broader thinking resulting from the European Union have provided new avenues for the acceptance and application of wilderness in the European context. The European Commission on the Environment produced the Natura 2000 as a plan to conserve biodiversity across the European landscape.  Natura 2000 includes specific definitions of wilderness and the challenges of wilderness area creation and management in a European context (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/).  

After our time together, Bill continued his work on establishing a wilderness area on Coillte managed lands.  Late in 2012, I received an invitation to speak at a conference hosted by Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (Ireland) to both address the issues of “Wilderness in a Modified Landscape” and to mark the launch of the Nephin Beg Wilderness Area on Coillte and National Park lands in the Nephin Beg mountain range, County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Coillte has provided an informative video of the Nephin Wilderness project http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=N1CZRu2f7lM

In May, I made the trip to Ireland and spoke at the conference.  The conference was attended by more than 100 delegates from 8 European countries and a wide range of Irish stakeholders and also included a presentation from the Environmental Directorate of the European Union.  The first day of the very interesting and provided a full introduction to the issues and challenges facing wilderness establishment in the European context.  For my presentation and others see http://www.coillte.ie/intex.php?id=1910
Conferenced Attendees

Day two of the conference was all about visiting the Nephin Beg Wilderness, or at least the edge of this 11,000 hectare (27,500 acre) wilderness area north of Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. 
English Entrance Sign to the Nephin Wilderness

The field trip included stops to view and discuss numerous issues involved with the initial stages of establishing the wilderness.

We spent some time at a small stone building called a “bothy” – originally designed as a shelter for shepherds, now being considered as the primary trailhead and parking opportunity for the newly designated area.  The trailhead included access to the “Bangor Trail”, an ancient drovers route that is recorded on maps as early as 1590 and traverses the area offering a wilderness hike of over 25km.  A reminder that the Bangor of my home had origins in Ireland.
Brogan Carroll Bothy

One of the most interesting portions of the day for me was a visit to recent shelter construction and trail re-construction efforts.  It is important to realize that the European landscape, including Ireland, has been utilized and inhabited by people for centuries.  In most areas, the original flora and fauna are either absent or heavily impacted by species imported from other areas.  In many instances, exotic species have been in place for so long the distinction is hard to define – hence the conference theme of “Wilderness in a modified European landscape”.  From a beautiful vantage point into the Nephin, the view I saw reminded me of somewhere in Montana.  The conifers in the foreground were planted lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce, the slopes in the background were grazed by sheep. 

View into the Nephin Wilderness
Although the landscape looked arid, it was quite the opposite and much of the underlying “soil” consists of a thick blanket of peat.  The climate of the west of Ireland promotes the formation of peat on a great percentage of the landscape.  In recent years, the preservation and restoration of peat ecosystems, particularly raised bog ecosystems, has been a strong focus in environmental management in Ireland and Coillte has restored close to 4,000 ha. (10,000 ac) of blanket and raised bog sites.  The existence of 3’ or more of peat on the landscape can provide real challenges in trail construction and maintenance.  In the relatively wet climate of Ireland the blanket of peat on the landscape acts as a huge sponge, holding and distributing astounding amounts of water.  Adjacent to some mechanized trail work, a cut displayed the peat face and the water pouring out of the peat layer. 
Water pouring from peat

As you would expect, the surface footing was soft and wet.  This poses a serious problem for defined trail access.  Any significant foot traffic on a defined treadway would quickly work through the thin vegetated layer and enter the peat beneath.  When this happens, it is game over regarding the maintenance of the path as a hiking trail.  Coillte demonstrated a section of trail where an excavator was employed to remove the peat layer and replace it with coarse sub-soil material from below the peat layer. 

As you can see from the photo, this approach has significant impacts in both site disturbance and cost but is likely to produce a trail tread that can withstand significant hiking traffic.  The adjacent disturbance will likely be quickly revegetated in the damp Irish climate.  This process is likely not applicable for any length of trail in the Wild Nephin,(and is being used here on a section of the heavily used “trail” in part of the developed natural zone of the new wilderness) but it is an example of the adaptive and energetic approach to addressing recreation challenges brought to bear by Bill Murphy and his staff at Coillte.
Reconstructed trail section through peat layer

We also spent some time looking at the Wild Nephin’s latest construction project.  This shelter was constructed by volunteer labor provided by Mountain Meitheal.  Mountain Meitheal (http://www.pathsavers.org) is an Irish trail conservation club similar to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) in the US and the leanto was constructed by the club to celebrate their tenth anniversary and the launch of the wilderness area.  The shelter was similar, but more refined than a typical log leanto in Baxter Park and utilized machined “log” walls and an OSB and cedar shingle roof.  In the photo below, you can see the water collection device on the side of the leanto which captures and stores water from roof run-off for use by hikers.

New Leanto at the edge of the Nephin Wilderness

As a result of the gracious hospitality of Bill and his wife Bairbre, I was able to stay in Ireland for several days before and after the conference and spend time In Wicklow Mountains National Park with Regional Manager Wesley Atkinson, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service as well as additional time on Coillte lands on a tour as part of an conference on Ecosystem Services.   The complexity of the interacting concerns of environmental, ecosystem and social issues in land management in Ireland is extremely interesting and for me, very encouraging. Recently, we have been discussing continuing to share our knowledge and experience on the wilderness concept and the management of wilderness.  I have the greatest hopes that over time the Irish people will treasure the Nephin Wilderness just as Maine people treasure Baxter State Park.

Wilderness catalysts Bill Murhph of Coillte and Denis Strong of the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service at the Gaelic version of the Nephin Wilderness entrance sign   (Nice hat, Bill!!)




[1] A “public” company is a company listed on the stock exchange while a “private” company is not – it can be owned by an individual, a family, or in this case the State (Ireland).