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Poland Violated Law by Logging UNESCO-protected Białowieża Forest, Court Rules

At least 10,000 trees are believed to have been felled in the ancient forest since 2016

By Arthur Neslen

The EU’s highest court has ruled that Poland’s logging in the UNESCO-protected Białowieża forest is illegal, potentially opening the door to multi-million euro fines.

photo of Bialowieza Forest Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Poland Logs cut and ready for removal from Poland's Białowieża forest. The EU's highest court ruled that Poland's logging in the ancient forest violates EU laws.

At least 10,000 trees are thought to have been felled in Białowieża, one of Europe’s last parcels of primeval woodland, since the Polish environment minister, Jan Szyzko, tripled logging limits there in 2016.

Greenpeace says that as many as 100,000 conifers and broad-leaved trees in the lowland forest may have been lost.

Poland had claimed that the chainsaws were needed to excise a spruce beetle outbreak but, in a damning ruling, the EU judges found that Poland’s own documents showed that logging posed a greater threat to Białowieża’s integrity.

A minimum fine of €4.3 million — potentially rising to €100,000 a day — could now be levied against Poland unless the tree felling is stopped.

James Thornton, the chief executive of the green law firm ClientEarth, said: “This is a huge victory for all defenders of Białowieża forest. Hundreds of people were heavily engaged in saving this unique, ancient woodland from unthinkable destruction.”

The EU’s environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, tweeted: “Protecting biodiversity paramount. We welcome the Polish Govt’s recognition & look forward to implementation.”

The European court of justice ruling follows reports of imminent Polish concessions in a separate dispute between Warsaw and Brussels over the independence of its judiciary and free media.

EU officials though stressed that Białowieża was a “very separate” case, adding that the commission would now closely monitor Poland’s response to the verdict.

“If they comply with the judgment, no problem,” one EU source told The Guardian. “If they don’t, we have a possibility to go to a second infringement procedure that may end up in fines.”

A government statement said that Poland would soon propose a “compromise solution” for Białowieża, after a new protection plan had been prepared.

photo of Bialowieza Forest Photo by Frank Vassen Białowieża is one of the last remaining fragments of the primeval forest that carpeted Europe 10,000 years ago, and it remains a haven for wildlife, including birds, wolves, and lynx.

Henryk Kowalczyk, the country’s environment minister, added: “Poland will respect the verdict. The Białowieża forest is our national heritage. All the activities have been undertaken with its preservation in the best possible condition for present and future generations in mind.”

Another government source told The Guardian: “The issue is not black and white, but nobody will be questioning the ruling.”

Białowieża is one of the last remaining fragments of the primeval forest that carpeted Europe 10,000 years ago, and it remains a haven for birds, wolves, lynx and 25 percent of the world’s European bison population.

Nestled across Poland and Belarus on the watershed of the Baltic and Black Seas, UNESCO has classified the the forest as a site of “outstanding universal value.”

But Greenpeace argues that it is still threatened by government plans to replant in virgin forest areas, and should be turned into a national park.

Its spokeswoman, Kasia Jagiello, said: “Białowieża has beautiful powers to regenerate itself — if it is left alone. If you plant new trees in logged parts of the natural forest, you risk turning it into a managed wood, and we have more than enough of those in Poland.”

The group is fighting for charges to be dropped against 300 activists arrested during anti-logging protests, and fears that public safety will be used as “a pretext” for continued low-level logging.

Poland has withdrawn its heavy machinery from Białowieża, while preserving a right to continue logging where falling trees or branches are a concern.

But the EU court found that Poland had not defined precisely what “public safety” meant, and that its “active forest management operations” could not be permitted for that reason.

The issue could be a test for the commission, which sees “a positive recalibration” in Warsaw, since Jan Szyzko’s removal as environment minister in January.

Ariel Brunner, head of policy at BirdLife Europe, said that the EU’s swift action had “stopped the chainsaw massacre of Europe’s most iconic forest, but only after substantial damage has already been done. The commission must now show the same resolve in tackling the many other cases of illegal environmental destruction underway throughout Europe.”

 

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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