From the beginnings of the iron ore processing industry, wood was an important raw material. The demand for charcoal for use in blast furnaces and hammer mills grew steadily throughout the Middle Ages. Even back then there was concern about overexploitation of the forests.
Copper and iron mining in the pastThe host of archaeological evidence of copper smelters in Johnsbach shows there was considerable use of copper ore deposits right up to the time around 1800 B.C. This was linked with a high demand for charcoal.
In the Middle Ages, the forest was already the most important source of raw material for the smelting of iron and operation of salt works. Wood was used in mining, for constructing residential and farm buildings, for heating, building bridges and for many other purposes. Even at the time, there were localized timber shortages due to overexploitation, which also led to flooding and avalanches. The forest rejuvenation period was equivalent to half a human lifetime, which meant that forest on a given area needed 30 years to become properly re-established.
Valuable raw material in the Middle Ages
In 1495, Emperor Maximilian enacted his forest law. This law was, however, primarily aimed at ensuring the supply of raw materials and served as a clear reminder of Imperial forest rights (forests in the areas around ore smelting works were reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor). Protection and preservation of woodland was thus only of secondary concern.
Completion of the Hieflau barrier (Hieflauer Rechen) in 1516 was a milestone in terms of timber utilisation and forest management in the area. The Hieflau furnaces and the hammer mills in the area severely depleted the timber reserves on both sides of the River Enns down to the foothills of the Dachstein in the west of the Enns valley. The abbot of Admont Monastery even reported to his sovereign that overexploitation of the forests was jeopardizing timber supplies for the landlord and local subjects.
In 1625/1626, the mining company "Innerberger Hauptgewerkschaft" was founded, which in 1630 signed a forestry agreement with Admont Monastery. This agreement assigned primary use of the forests to the company while the monastery retained land ownership, hunting and fishing rights.
In 1872, the "Innerberger Hauptgewerkschaft" concluded another contract with Admont Monastery in which the company assumed ownership of the majority of forested areas to the east of the entrance to the Gesäuse.
From charcoal to coalThe same year saw the opening of the Crown Prince Rudolf Railway (Kronprinz-Rudolf-Bahn), which runs through the Gesäuse. Charcoal thus became less important because mineral coal could now be brought into the country quickly and easily. This changed the situation completely and the forests were no longer of importance as a source of raw materials for the "Innerberger Hauptgewerkschaft".
On 1 January 1889, the Styrian Forestry Authority (Steiermärkische Landesforste) therefore assumed ownership of the forests, including the area which is today the Gesäuse National Park.
Further information about the history of the forests is given in Volume 1 of the series published by the Gesäuse National Park (in German only).