Europe’s Last Major Primeval Forest on ‘Brink of Collapse’

State-sanctioned logging in UNESCO world heritage site may be pushing Poland's Białowieża forest ecosystem to point of no return

Scientists and environmental campaigners have accused the Polish government of bringing the ecosystem of the Białowieża forest in north-eastern Poland to the “brink of collapse” one year after a revised forest management plan permitted the trebling of state logging activity and removed a ban on logging in old growth areas.

photo of Bialowieza National Park Photo by Jacek Karczmarz Logging activity in Poland’s Białowieża forest threatens the primeval woodlands that provide habitat to rare species.

Large parts of the forest, which spans Poland’s eastern border with Belarus and contains some of Europe’s last remaining primeval woodland, are subject to natural processes not disturbed by direct human intervention.

A UNESCO natural world heritage site — the only one in Poland — the forest is home to about 1,070 species of vascular plants, 4,000 species of fungi, more than 10,000 species of insect, 180 breeding bird species and 58 species of mammal, including many species dependent on natural processes and threatened with extinction.

“At some point there will be a collapse, and if and when it happens, it’s gone forever — no amount of money in the universe can bring it back,” said Proffesor Tomasz Wesołowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wrocław who has been conducting fieldwork in Białowieża for each of the last 43 years. “With every tree cut, we are closer to this point of no return.”

Logging is prohibited in the Białowieża national park nature reserve, which contains woodland untouched by humans for thousands of years, but the reserve only accounts for 17 percent of the forest on the Polish side, leaving approximately 40,000 hectares vulnerable to state-sanctioned logging.

On recent visits to the forest, The Guardian encountered evidence of widespread logging of trees in apparent contravention of Polish and European law, including many trees that appeared to be more than 100 years old in UNESCO-protected areas, with logs marked for commercial distribution.

“They are logging natural, diverse forest stands which were not planted by humans and replacing them with plantations of trees of a single age and species,” said Adam Bohdan of the Wild Poland Foundation, which monitors logging activity and provides data for scientists working at the Białowieża botanical research station.

photo of Bialowieza National Park Photo by GreenPeace Poland Saplings are planted where old spruce and oak trees were recently logged.

“They are logging in UNESCO zones where timber harvesting is forbidden, they are logging 100-year-old tree stands in contravention of European law, they are logging during breeding season and destroying habitats occupied by rare species. It is disrupting natural processes which have been continuing there for thousands of years. We are losing large parts of the last natural forest — my worst nightmares are coming true,” said Bohdan.

The government argues that the logging is needed to protect the forest from a bark beetle outbreak and for reasons of public safety, both hotly disputed by conservationists.

“Logging of infested spruces does not stop a bark beetle outbreak, it just leaves thousands of hectares of clear-felled sites instead,” said Dr. Bogdan Jaroszewicz of the University of Warsaw, the director of the Białowieża research station. (Read more about the bark beetle issue.)

“Of course, dead trees can’t be left standing along public roads or tourist trails, but logging is taking place in places quite remote from these routes.”

Opponents accuse the environment minister, Jan Szyszko, who is a forester and lecturer in forest management, of sacrificing the forest for the sake of the vested interests of the Polish forestry industry.

“You can see how many trees they are cutting down that don’t even have bark, and so can’t be vulnerable to the bark beetle,” said Bohdan. “They are also clearing away dead and decaying trees that are crucial for the forest’s biodiversity and natural processes, including tree regeneration — they just see it as a waste of valuable wood.”

Conservationists also point to the protected reserve in the Białowieża national park, which is surviving the same bark beetle outbreak without logging.

But logging proponents insist that most of the present-day forest is the product of human activity, giving the government the right to pursue a strategy it calls “active management.”

Szyszko is known to cite the grave of an elderly woman in the Orthodox cemetery in the nearby town of Hajnówka as evidence in support of his approach. The epitaph on the tombstone of Anastazja Pańko, who died in 2010 at the age of 101, reads “I planted this forest.”

With generous funding from the environment ministry, government supporters are engaged in a ground war for local hearts and minds in support of the “active management” approach. “The pseudo-ecologists are destroying the forest, we are rebuilding it,” reads a banner hanging over the road to Białowieża from Białystok, the regional capital.

The banner belongs to Santa, a campaign group that received more than 100,000 złoty (£20,000) in funding from state forest authorities between 2012 and 2015; Santa’s president, Walenty Wasiluk, owns a wood products wholesale firm whose website boasts of annual sales of €4m (£3.5m).

Responsible for managing land constituting approximately a third of all Polish territory, state foresters generate annual revenue of 7bn złoty (£1.2bn), controlling 96 percent of the Polish timber market that provides the raw material for annual wood, paper, and furniture exports worth 45bn złoty. In a 2016 press release, state foresters promised a record supply of 40 million cubic meters of wood in 2017.

Campaigners note a substantial discrepancy between figures provided by the Polish government in a joint report with Belarus submitted to UNESCO in 2016, and those provided by state forest officials as a result of freedom of information requests. Whereas the report said there had been 21,172 cubic meters of wood extraction on the Polish side in 2016, according to official statistics the figure is actually 64,059 cubic meters – more than three times the number submitted to UNESCO — with 39 percent of the logging conducted in zones where logging is not permitted in accordance with UNESCO World Heritage obligations.

“They don’t care about trees — they care about wood,” said Adam Wajrak, a veteran environmental campaigner.

“Foresters think the forest exists to serve them, and not the other way round,” said Wesołowski. “It’s a classic monopoly — they extract money from land belonging to the Polish people and keep most of it for themselves, destroying the land in the process.”

That is unlikely to change any time soon. Foresters and hunters are a key electoral constituency of Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party; the new director general of state forests, Konrad Tomaszewski, is the cousin of the law and justice leader, Jarosław Kaczyński.

The Polish government now faces the threat of being taken to the European Court of Justice by the European commission. “Due to the threat of a serious irreparable damage to the site, the commission is urging the Polish authorities to reply within one month instead of a customary two-month deadline,” the commission said in April.

But campaigners say the government is impervious to its legal obligations and fear that fundamental irreparable damage has already been done.

“It’s like replacing wild birds with battery hens,” said Wajrak, as he surveyed an expanse of land recently cleared of trees and which is now surrounded by metal fencing and is bare except for neat rows of newly-planted oak saplings.

“We want a forest, not an oak farm.”

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