UAF team briefs Bosnians about wartime forest losses

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The multicolored image projected on the screen was dramatic to the Bosnian scientists and officials gathered in a conference room at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A murmur could be heard from the group Tuesday afternoon when the satellite picture of Sarajevo appeared on the screen. Where once an idyllic capital surrounded by a beautiful woodland sat now was a picture of pure devastation.

''The first year they just cut down the trees,'' said Sarajevo University scientist Samir Dug. ''The next year they came back and dug up the roots.''

In the confines of a 200,000-acre area in and around a city under siege during the breakup of Yugoslavia, every burnable piece of vegetation was stripped from parks and wild alike and drained of its energy.

There was no gas in Sarajevo, no electricity, no fuel oil. Only wood for three and one-half years, and gathering it was a way of life.

''So everyone from children in school to the elders would do it,'' Dug said.

The siege ended five years ago when both sides signed a peace treaty.

The healing of the forest goes much like the healing of a country divided along ethnic lines. These things take time, and the World Bank-funded work the Bosnians are in town to see this week could be a useful tool in rebuilding the forest.

The images shown Tuesday at the International Arctic Research Center were the culmination of years of work for a UAF research team.

The scientists took Land-Sat images gathered from the late '80s to 1998. They programmed the photos to match ground coordinates they gathered while in the country and spent years analyzing the pictures taken from miles above.

The resulting database gives the Bosnians color-coded visuals showing the decline and regrowth of their forests for a decade. They can cross-reference, looking for patterns in the data or zoom in on a fairly small area for a detailed analysis.

''The real grinding work started mid-June of 1999,'' Andrew Balser told a delegation member. ''It was time-consuming, but once the project was complete and you have a base of information, then it becomes a lot of fun.''

Balser, a computer technician who helped design the database, and professors Harry Bader, Scott Rupp and David Verbyla, originally were asked by the United Nations to study the ecological consequences of war in Bosnia. That project developed into the current one and allows the Bosnians more than just a picture of their country from on high.

A remnant from the conflict impedes forest management and conservation still.

''After the war, it is estimated that we have almost 6 million land mines throughout the country,'' Dug said. ''Sometimes it's not possible to reach an area. With this satellite data, we can make a comparison.''

Dug is risking his life at times when he does field work in his country's forests.

''Ten days ago I went to an area that was cleared,'' he said. ''We had maps and we were in the middle of a mine field. We were very lucky.''

Dug is excited about the research being given to his country. He will use it to teach his ecology classes. It is unclear what the Bosnian delegation thinks of the research.

They would not comment without clearance from their government, but they did show interest during the meeting and patiently waited for translations of complicated scientific information.

While the officials remained quiet, Dug talked at length about his hopes for the future of his country's forest. He and others would have that nation's government impose environmental rules to help protect and conserve.

An expansion of national park land is another wish in a country that has just two parks. They cover 50 acres of Bosnia, which measures 51,000 square kilometers.

In Dug's experience, his young students show an interest in environmentalism, one brought about after witnessing the ravages of war.

He hopes the research gathered at UAF will help Bosnia's forest and the people who care about it.

''We have gathered all the people here and we are making a good base,'' he said.


Distributed by The Associated Press

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