Lizardoia Integral Reserve, Spain

The beech–fir forests of Lizardoia and Aztaparreta constitute the last remnants of primary beech groves in the Pyrenees, which are intact due to natural causes and historical reasons. Both are protected as integral reserves since 1986.

They are located in the westernmost part of the Pyrenees mountain range and are found in the subalpine biogeographic region, which is characterized by a mountain climate with a certain Atlantic influence. They are located in a long strip of continuous forest in the northeastern part of the province of Navarra (Spain) and near the border with France, where the Special Conservation Areas of Roncesvalles-Selva de Irati and Larra-Aztaparreta together cover 244.94 km2.

In this article we will focus specifically on the Lizardoia beech–fir forest. It is located in the large forest known as “Selva de Irati” (171.79 km2), specifically on the northwest slope of Lizardoia peak (1198m altitude), part of Mount La Cuestión, and belongs to the municipality of Otsagabia, in the Roncal-Salazar region.

Its buffer zone is managed in the Roncesvalles-Selva de Irati Special Conservation Area (ACE in spanish), declared in 2011. The large extension of the beech forest in this area (Selva de Irati) makes it the largest and best preserved in Western Europe.

Abiotic factors: In the Irati Forest, we find mainly Tertiary rocks, although we can also find others from the Cretaceous, Devonian and Ordovician. In the western part of this component, we can see quartzite, schist and small areas of slate; in the central part, different types of limestone predominate, such as dolomitic and massive marl, as well as marl, siltstone and detrital flysch.

As for the climate, we are facing the subalpine biogeographic region, which enjoys a mountain climate, but with oceanic influence due to the proximity of the Cantabrian Sea. Lizardoia’s annual rainfall is well distributed over the year and is around 1900 mm, while the average annual temperature is 9.2°C.

Edaphically, we find dystric cambisols that are generally acidic or moderately acidic due to the decarbonization of calcareous rocks due to abundant rains. In the middle and upper areas of the steep slopes, the soils are shallower, making conditions worse due to their susceptibility to erosion. In general terms, we must point out the good drainage capacity of the soils in the area and their variability in thickness depending on the bedrock and the slope. The area is characterized by the large number of permanent streams due to frequent rainfall.

With regard to vegetation, the forest habitat of Lizardoia Integral Reserve is beech–fir (photo below), the most common species being beech (Fagus sylvatica) while silver fir (Abies alba) predominates at higher elevations and on shadier slopes. The few other tree species include holly (Ilex aquifolium) and common juniper (Juniperus communis).

Beech–fir forest. The beech in the foreground has height of 38.2 m and girth of 335 cm. On the left, pit and mound left by root plate of a fallen tree, a typical sign of old-growth forest, visible long after the tree has rotted away

Regarding the history, little is known about this mountainous area until the seventeenth century. At that time, the elevated territories of the Irati massif belonged to France. The forest of La Cuestión, where the Lizardoia site is located, was the subject of disputes, including armed skirmishes, between Spain and France for a long period. Finally, in 1856, the International Treaty on Borders assigned it to Spain. After that moment, a long judicial process began between the Spanish State and the Salazar Valley to determine to whom the property corresponded. This implied that, while other parts of the great massif of Irati began to be exploited, mainly extracting wood by flotation through the river, the exploitation of the forest of La Cuestión was delayed. Finally, in 1960, the forest manager decided that a small part of this beech and fir forest should be retained as a Reserve, which he called the ‘cathedral of nature’. In 1986, this small part of intact beech forest began to be legally protected as a Strict Reserve.

Lizardoia’s intact plot has 0.20 km2 of forest that has never been logged. It is the part that the guards called “The Park” before the creation of the current Lizardoia Integral Reserve of 0.64 km2. Although the rest of the forests in the area were first cut down in the 1950s, the forest managers decided not to cut down that 0.20 km2 area, which made it possible to maintain its virgin status.

In the Lizardoia Integral Reserve any type of human intervention is excluded, with the exception of activities for scientific or educational purposes, which can obtain a permit. A natural development of the habitat is expected. The natural development trends of mixed beech forests in both parts will be guided by natural regeneration processes, through the fall of trees by wind, snow, aging or other biotic and abiotic forces. There are still no specific studies on the forest dynamics in the area, but a monitoring program has been established in the management plans of the ZECs to ensure that different conservation objectives are achieved.

Alberto Cuervo


Estudio del paisaje cultural de los hayedos primigenios de España declarados por UNESCO patrimonio de la humanidad y establecimiento de estrategias para su salvaguarda. 2019. Gobierno de España, Ministerio de cultura y deporte.