Following an amendment, 55 million hectares of forest in Thessaloniki have been declassified. A bill regarding the selling off of several shorelines was proposed, but luckily was withdrawn due to the Panhellenic outcry and the collection of more than 100.000 signatures. Last, but not least, the service responsible for supplying water in Thessaloniki is going to be privatized. It seems there is nothing preventing the government from trying to sell off anything they can. These days, they are attempting summarily to sell short our peri-urban forest.
Thessaloniki’s new Master Plan was tabled in Greek Parliament a week ago, ironically in the name of development. In this Master Plan, it is envisaged that the peri-urban forest of Thessaloniki, called Sheikh Sou, will be converted into a peripheral park. Unfortunately, the categorization of the area will not be the only thing that is going to change if this plan substantiates. The plan will prepare the ground for the encroachment and the capitalization of the forestry land, as it is going to give permission to many actions, such as building settlements, the conversion of areas for touristic development, the creation of quarries and other similarly worrying projects.
Thessaloniki is a city lacking in green spaces so this forest is in no way a luxury. Sheikh Sou plays a dual role, as it is a precious "lung" for the city and at the same time, constitutes a "dam" for flood defense. The only thing that the State should aim for is the conservation and protection of the forest, especially from fires that occur every summer and threaten to eradicate it. The Government should now care about the shortage of fire fighting vehicles and not about the conversion of the forest land to other uses.
Sheikh Sou Forest today…
On Sunday, July 6, 1997, at 15:35, the fire services in Thessaloniki received a phone call regarding the large fire that resulted in devastating 12,000 out of the 30,000 hectares of the forest. Today, Sheikh Sou has rebounded thanks to human-induced activities, reforestation initiatives, and natural regeneration.
Works for artificial reforestation
A year after the fire, large-scale interventions were carried out by Thessaloniki’s reforestation services and the forest authorities, in order to protect the forest from erosion and the city from floods. Several flood prevention works, such as meshes among trees and the planting of more than 500,000 plants, gave people the hope that the forest would be revived. The following year the plants were hoed, sprayed and another 32,000 new plants were planted. Among the trees that were planted many of them were pines, acacias, oaks, cedars, Judas trees, maples, and many different bushes, such as spartiums, angelicas and oleanders.
In 2003, the need to organize more interventions for managing the forest was recognized, and the project "Protection and Upgrade of Thessaloniki’s Peri-urban Forest" began. The project included 11 main interventions and 15 sub-projects. Responsible for all these interventions were the Region of Central Macedonia, the Organization of Planning and Environmental Protection of Thessaloniki (OR.TH.), and the Service responsible for the city’s public works. The project was coordinated by the Planning and Development Directorate of Central Macedonia.
The objectives of the project were the forest’s flood resistance, its protection and environmental upgrading, and increased citizen awareness. Ms. Chantzaridou, who is responsible for the part of citizens’ awareness, states "The flood prevention works that have been completed have yielded results. In 2008, 102 new dams were constructed. The forest is now intensively monitored. A timely intervention is possible in cases of fire, thanks to the work that has been organized by Thessaloniki’s forest authority, such as the maintenance of the road network inside the forest and regular pruning of the trees."
As far as the environmental upgrade is concerned, several great actions have been completed. After a special environmental and feasibility study of the project, several works were organized in order to complete and improve the vegetation in the area. More specifically, according to the Reforestation Directorate, 223,000 plantings of coniferous and broadleaved trees were done in 2008. Additionally, repairs were applied to 10 existing recreational areas and 4 new ones were created.
Lastly, as far as citizen awareness in concerned, Ms. Chantzaridou has informed us that regarding the actions that have been implemented until now, "We acted on the basis of a specialized plan. Written and audio-visual material was produced and our work was published in print and electronic media. Events, sporting competitions and informational meetings were organized. All the work and the materials can be found at the project’s official website."
The artificial reforestation was not the only project that contributed. All human activities laid the foundation for the forest’s revival. It is estimated that less than 40% of the result is thanks to forestry handling, whereas more than 60% was achieved thanks to natural regeneration. The most important factor for success in a reforestation project is to prepare the place so that it can then thrive on its own. Furthermore, mass plantings without any additional work or effort are pointless.
The natural regeneration is noticeable in many areas of the forest. When one walks around the forest, they encounter many trees species that were not planted during the interventions. A very important development is that there are many young pine trees that have grown on their own. This happens because the high temperatures that are created during a fire results in opening the pines’ cones and scattering around their seeds.
Visit the forest carefully!
It is really beautiful seeing a green landscape behind the city. What is even more beautiful is to visit the forest closely and enjoy everything that it offers. Sheikh Sou is so close to the city that anyone can visit it. It is easy to access by car, but be careful to drive slowly in order not to disturb the quietness of the place. Many people visit by bike or on foot for recreational purposes or for exercise, as there is a network of nature trails that one can follow. It is a destination for families and groups of friends and at the same one could find a quiet place to relax. Children have the chance to learn what life in a forest feels like, recognize species of trees and learn how to protect the forest. Most importantly, they can learn the significance of protection and the love towards this gift that we have been offered in the city we live.
Small fires still occur from time to time. Unfortunately this happens during some windy summer days. I suppose there are some people who still can’t comprehend how much they need this forest.
Are there any forests near the city you live? Do people enjoy visiting them? Have there been any specific projects for the protection of these green spaces?
The original article, published in Greek, can be found here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.