The Real Threat to Europe’s Last Primeval Forest: Bark Beetles or Undemocratic Politicians?

Poland’s plans to increase logging in Białowieża may destroy this ancient forest

This past March in Białowieża, Poland, a few dozen people stood on a street corner shouting, “dead wood, new life!“ Across the street at a luxury Best Western a crowd of about a hundred held Polish flags and banners that read: “The ancient forest is dying,” and “pseudo-ecologists destroy Białowieża.” Both groups, protestors and supporters, were there to greet Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, whose proposal to increase logging in Bialowieża Forest has pit environmentalists and the scientific community against logging interests and the country’s right-wing government. 

Białowieża National Park, PolandPhoto by Frank Vassen A decaying log in the Białowieża oldgrowth reserve. Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 4,000 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison.

Szyszko’s planned state forestry management plan includes at least an threefold increase in the timber harvest in what is arguably Europe’s most ancient and biodiverse forest and one of the very few forests with a core that has never been commercially logged. 

Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża Forest is one of largest remaining parts of the immense 8,000-year-old forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The 580 square mile forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 4,000 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison.

The Polish section of the forest (one third portion of the entire forest) includes the country’s oldest national park — Białowieża National Park — which  covers an area of about 105 square km (about 17 percent of the entire forest area on the Polish side) and is famous for its bison population and, perhaps even more, for its strictly protected 57 sq km inner zone of old growth forest, which has existed without forest management for nearly 8000 years. The 2/3 of the forest that lies outside the national park is open to selective logging. It’s this area that’s been the subject of an ongoing battle between environmentalists and  foresters.

Poland’s new far right government says logging is needed because more than 10 percent of spruce trees in Białowieża Forest are suffering from a bark beetle outbreak. Pro-logging advocates believe that native spruce bark beetle will destroy all spruce in the forest unless they remove dead and dying wood as well as all trees that have infestations or have the potential to be attacked soon. But repeated studies indicate that native European bark beetle have an important ecological role to play when forests do not need to yield timber profits.

Szyszko has steadfastly refused to listen to the counsel of world experts on the matter. Earlier this month he removed 32 of 39 members of the State Council of Nature Protection, an advisory body which had opposed the logging plan. He replaced biologists and ecologists on the council with foresters, faculty members from college farming departments, and botanical gardens staff.

The situation in Bialowieza is dire. The proposed new amendment would annul a hard won conservation victory that limited timber harvest in the forest to 63.4 thousand cubic meters during a 10-year period between 2012-2021. If these changes take effect the harvests will be increased to 188 thousand cubic meters over the next six years. Szyszko says the timber, which he estimates is worth $178 million, will be used for furniture.

Logged area in BiałowieżaPhoto providedA clearcut area in the buffer zone around Białowieża where the spruce trees were infested with bark beetle.

What does this mean for the integrity of a forest that is partially protected as a national park and partially logged? It means that so-called “selective logging” will likely include stands in the buffer zone around the national park that have been regenerating without human intervention for centuries; stands that have some trees that are more than 200 years old and that are rich habitats for wildlife. Foresters will replace the old trees in this area with marketable timber species. The loss of these patches of old growth forest outside the national park would jeopardize this unique ecosystem’s sustainability.

Bialowieza could lose World Heritage Designation

In my 20 years of doing ethnographic research in Białowieża, native bark beetles (Ips typographus) and dead woody debris have been at the center of conservationists’ fight to expand the Białowieża National Park. While I’ve seen flare ups over this issue from time to time, this time it is different. This time, the threat to this forest’s biological diversity is imminent.

The Białowieża Forest complex is one whole ecosystem, but the area about to be logged is owned by Polish State Forestry. That means it’s a public-owned forest. Occupying German forces began logging ancient trees here during WWI. Prior to that Białowieża had been protected for some 500 years as a royal hunting reserve. Polish Kings, Lithuanian Dukes, and Russian Tsars all provided some form of legal protection against felling for much of the forest.

Today, the national park part of the forest — which was largely untouched by loggers during WWI — includes an admixture of oak, linden and hornbeam. Spruce trees dot the park as well.  Huge roots of dead trees splay up toward the canopy. Thousands of species of fungi network over the forest floor and up tree trunks. By contrast, in the area that’s open to commercial logging there are conifer plantations, most of which were planted by area inhabitants during the time Poland was under Communist rule. But about 25 percent of the managed area is covered by natural forest with tree stands greater than 100 years old, which has preserved ecological continuity.              

Over the last century, biologists in particular have fought for and won reserve areas within the commercial state forestry lands in Białowieża. In the forest reserves you can find an assortment of maple, oaks and pine. Black storks are making a comeback in some wet areas of the commercial forest.  

Environmentalists, including the Polish Academy of Sciences, hundreds of university scientists and nonprofits, not to mention Harvard and Oxford University scientists have voiced their concern about the new logging plan. Both the European Commission, which oversees the Natura 2000 habitat protection program, and UNESCO have condemned Szyszko’s management plans.

UNESCO is, in fact, contemplating revoking the forest’s designation as a World Heritage Site due to the amount of logging planned. UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage site in 1979 due to the scale of its old growth forests, “which include extensive undisturbed areas where natural processes are on-going. A consequence is the richness in dead wood, standing and on the ground, and consequently a high diversity of fungi and saproxylic invertebrates.” Plans to log the forest would compromise the integrity of this designation. Szyszko, however, has openly called the UNESCO designation “a tragedy.”

Meanwhile, several nonprofits have filed a complaint at the European Union level and the EU is debating whether to remove the forest’s designation as a site of significance and fine Poland for violating Natura 2000 habitat protection rules. 

So is the bark beetle really threatening the forest, or are undemocratic politicians?

There is no disputing that a bark beetle outbreak is underway and that it will cause a large-scale disturbance in the forest.  But there also many independent scientific studies about bark beetle and forest ecology that show that the beetle evolved with the forest and serves an important ecological function of creating clearings in the shade cover of spruce. Like beavers, bark beetles shape whole landscapes. They create openings in the forest canopy allowing light to reach the forest floor. More deciduous light loving trees and shrubs mean more nutrition for herbivores like bison.

A series of dry years after decades of forestry practices that favored spruce over other native trees led to the recent outbreak in the first place. Polish forest ecologists who have been studying the bark beetle, such as Jerzy Gutowski of the Institute of Forestry Sciences, Białowieża, argue that 2016 is not the most intense of outbreak. He and other scientists project that 80 to 90 percent of the spruce trees will survive the outbreak if left untreated (that is, if no large scale logging intervention is done.)  They say if the entire part of forest area within Poland were managed as a national park with no logging allowed, the bark beetle infestation would not be a problem.

Poland’s environmentalists have been fighting vociferously for national park status for the whole forest since the first post-Communist government in the early 1990s. They have also been constantly seeking ways to ensure that state forestry limits logging in Białowieża. Activists from Wild Poland Foundation and Greenpeace regularly monitor logging activities in the forest and organize wide scale public protests against current management plans.

Will local communities lose revenue?

ancient oak forest in BiałowieżaPhoto providedAncient oak-hornbeams in the strictly protected area of the Białowieża National Park. Nearly 200,000 people visit Białowieża every year.

During my first visit to Białowieża in 1995, I witnessed a period when most people in the area worked for state forestry or related timber industries. But now most members of the 1,200-strong community making up the Białowieża municipal area work in the tourism. Polish and international tourists flock to this place because of the forests’ renown and stay in the bed and breakfasts that many of the inhabitants run. 

Conservation did not destroy the local economy as some logging advocates like to argue. The 75 percent downsizing of state forestry labor force in the early 1990s was not due to nature conservation. It was because at the time most of the state-owned industries downsized and contracted out work to independent agencies. The State Forestry owns 30 percent of all Polish land and Białowieża is less than one percent of the total forested area in Poland, thus a minor part of the revenue for this organization. In the year 2000 and then again by 2009 two brokered plans sponsored by the Polish government with 30 million Euros in funding to support the transitioning economy had been proposed for when the national park was expanded.  But all such plans have been rejected by the local councils that are often made up of foresters and their supporters.

Nearly 200,000 people visit Białowieża annually and most come to see the national park and also to recreate in the commercial woodland. Locals with tourism-related businesses in Bialowieza fare much better than their neighbors in other villages where there is some logging activity but no tourism. In fact, Bialowieza has one of the highest standards of living in all of Poland. Yet many locals still support the logging plans while a small, but growing, group fights it.

Euroskepticism and Forest Politics

Logging the Białowieża forest, and doing it intensively, has become a symbolic move for Poland’s new right-wing, Euro-skeptic Law and Justice party (PiS) which swept into power last year.

Voters, especially those in rural areas, rejected years of free-market reforms by the previous government, Civic Platform, and they also roundly reject the communist past, leaving them with a nationalist ideology that is at once economically protectionist and xenophobic, anti-gay rights, pro-natalist (encouraging women to stay at home by paying them directly for second and third children to increase the national population), and as is clear in the Białowieża case — anti-nature protection. Those who oppose the ruling party can simply be removed from their government posts in media, teaching, banking and forestry.

The European Parliament has been looking at developments in this member nation with increasing concern.

In January the Law and Justice party broke with constitutional law, removing sitting judges from the Constitutional Tribunal and replacing them with five of their own judges, and soon after passed a law severely limiting the Tribunal’s power. The EU has opened up an inquiry to decide whether Poland is violating the Union’s democratic norms.

A majority of Polish voters may have voted for PiS but that does not mean the country is unified. In April, in a front page appeal in Poland’s leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, three former presidents, including Lech Walesa accused the nationalist PiS government of threatening democracy and constitutional order in the country. And on May 7, about 240,000 people participated in an anti-government march in Warsaw, organized by KOD (Committee on the Defense of Democracy). 

Białowieża stands front and center in this political warfare.

Environmentalists in Poland are a wide-ranging social group that includes people from different political parties, but largely they look to the EU and its strong protective network, Natura 2000, to designate areas of critical habitat protection. (If Poland does not meet EU habitat protection standards it can be fined heavily.) Several international and European nonprofits, including BirdLife International, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network are have long come to the aid of Polish environmental activists, and are rallying behind them this time too.

“The struggle to protect Białowieża and make it a national park is our Alamo. This place should be like our Serengeti or Great Barrier Reef. What happens to the forest here will define the future direction of nature conservation in our country,” Katarzyna Jagiełło, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, told the Guardian, stressing that the group would do “whatever needs to be done” to protect the forest.

International ecologists — including Harvard professor, David Foster, Belgian ecologist Martin Hermy, and world-famous plant ecologist George Peterken from the UK — too, have teamed up to write an open letter condemning Szyszko’s action.

Some foresters in western Poland, those not in support of Szyszko, have told me that the government should simply let go of Białowieża.  It’s a small part of the vast holdings of State Forestry authority and logging it provides little direct economic benefit to the local population. But Szyszko has made himself the face of the campaign to assert the state’s authority over biologists and ecologists. The environment minister and his party stand philosophically opposed to a place where nature protection might be at odds with their brand of Polish nationalism. 

In the face of such odds, those in favor of the national park plead to the outside world to see Białowieża Forest as both a national treasure and a global gem of biodiversity.

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