Erik Hoffner photo
Poland’s Bialowieza National Park is home to some of the most impressive trees in Europe. Old growth oak, ash, spruce, hornbeam, linden, lime, and pine tower out of sight, their trunks dripping with luscious moss. For millennia these trees (some of which are more than 600 years old) have harbored legions of top carnivores, rare bugs, birds, and plants. Three packs of wolves range the park’s wilderness, along with bison, lynx, wild boar, roe and red deer, otter, cranes, storks, three kinds of eagle, and four owl species.
Despite its surprising biodiversity and critical role as a wildlife corridor between Scandinavia and the Adriatic and Aegean regions, the forest’s existence and importance is not well known. That’s beginning to change, thanks to recent campaigns for its protection and its prominent role in the 2007 bestseller by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. Now, the Bialowieza Forest is recognized as an important natural wonder that has managed to survive and thrive during the ascendancy of human society on the continent.
Everything seems right here, but what appear to be adequate protections are proving not to be, and the forest is slowly dying, continually degraded by logging and hemmed in on all sides by roads and development. The park is a small part of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest, which covers a massive swath of western Belarus and northeastern Poland and enjoys national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site status on both sides of the border. It is the continent’s last large tract of lowland old growth forest, a window on Old Europe, older and grander than the grey cathedrals and castles typically associated with that legacy.
During a late 2008 visit to the forest, I met with Bialowieza activist Janusz Korbel, a compact and wiry mountain goat of a man, who filled in the blanks for me as we explored the jumbled landscape of boar wallows and massive fallen tree trunks in the Strictly Protected Area (SPA) of the park. The SPA restricts the number of visitors who can enter, and then allows them in only with a licensed guide. Although the park covers 39 square miles, the SPA protects only 16 percent of the forest on the Polish side of the border. The area’s native bear and European mink were eradicated long ago, as was the talismanic European bison in 1919. The latter was reintroduced in 1929; now numbering nearly 300, the bison is probably the forest’s most recognized inhabitant.
The rest of the Polish side of the forest, at approximately 200 square miles, is fragmented into large, poorly protected reserves that are regularly logged. Hunting is not allowed, but enforcement is lacking and violations are common. But while the park is probably too small to allow its natural processes to function precisely as they evolved, having a protected area of even this size is a great improvement. Prior to 1996, the park covered just seven percent of the forest, and was about the only place that wasn’t being heavily cut.
In response to this rampant exploitation, Korbel and some fellow activists hauled one particular logging victim – a massive stump of an old oak cut in one of the reserves – to Warsaw on a trailer and parked it in front of the Parliament. It was 1994, and this bold action sparked a national debate in the new democracy, which spurred the government to more than double the size of the park.
The victory stunned the Polish population. Korbel still uses the word “miracle” to describe it, but it surprised the citizens of towns adjacent to the forest the most; they had long assumed that it was theirs alone to manage.
Despite this, the national conversation on Bialowieza’s preservation largely ended with the expansion of the SPA, far short of what proponents believe is needed to keep the forest intact. As it stands, the park strains to contain its wild inhabitants – bison, lynx, and wolves are often forced to leave its confines to hunt and forage, putting them at risk from poachers and cars. The forest sprawls largely unbroken across 684 adjacent square miles in Belarus (half of which is national park), but a border fence precludes the passage of animals, effectively dividing the animal populations.
The most direct threat to the health of the forest is logging. One hundred forty thousand cubic meters (59 million board feet) of timber are cut every year within the Polish boundaries of the forest, and 30,000,000 cubic meters (12.7 billion board feet) have been cut since the end of World War I. This has relegated the vast majority of the remaining old growth trees with diameters over 6 feet (90 percent by some estimates) to the confines of the park, and more specifically the SPA.
The Bialowieza Forest is beautiful, but it is not pristine, having supported human habitation through several hundred years. Hive hollows, dug into the sides of towering pines by beekeepers, and ancient burial mounds of unknown origin are still found here. Ore was smelted among the trees as well, and hunting was a constant.
This legacy of use underscores the miracle that the forest still exists, largely unchanged, thanks to some lucky circumstances. For one, no river large enough to float huge logs flows through the Bialowieza, which helped safeguard it. Then, when the Polish monarchy discovered its riches of wildlife in 1409, the forest was declared a royal hunting ground, which prevented extensive despoliation.
Russian czars took control of Bialowieza in the late 1700s, and built palatial retreats on its margins that allowed the elites to enjoy occasional, if wildly extravagant, hunts. In this way the forest persisted largely intact until World War I, when the German army became its new gamekeeper (and also logged the trees heavily). Following a period of both stewardship and exploitation in between wars – during which the Poles declared the forest a national park and formed some of the original forest research programs – the area became a hunting reserve once again when the German army claimed it during the 1940s.
The Russians returned to take Bialowieza, and all of Poland, at the end of World War II. They formalized the forestry program and biological research institutions set up by the Poles in the 1920s, the former of which subsequently became ruled by a system of patronage and corruption. The differing aims of the institutes, with foresters focused on managing the forest for lumber and biologists studying its natural processes, widened the divisions between them and cultivated mistrust between the two camps that extends to the present day.
This stew gave rise to some very complicated conservation politics, and the stakes were high given the Bialowieza’s status as Poland’s most famous forest. Foresters have largely been the ones in control of it since 1920, and they have provided the rural populace with jobs, housing, and firewood, winning them favor with local people, while biologists have – fairly or not – been seen as more interested in their studies and advancing their careers than in contributing to the community. Eastern Poland was also quite “Russified” after World War II, and the local communities remained amenable to the kind of authoritarian structure exhibited by State Forestry, even after the fall of Communism forced massive job cuts at the local forestry departments due to market reforms.
Popular blame for those lost forestry jobs landed heavily on the biologists, despite the external causes, and foresters built on that resentment to lead the rural population in opposition to the park expansion proposal in the mid-1990s, saying that conservationists cared only about nature, not people. Because foresters dominate the local town councils and mayorships, and because their politics predictably favor extraction of resources, since 1996 it has been difficult for activists to effectively lobby for further protections, buffer zones, or boundaries for the park.
Russian influence returned to the area in 2008 when the massive Russian oil company Lukoil announced plans to build a new oil transport center in Narewka, just over three miles from the park’s northern boundary and well within the boundaries of the forest. The project called for new roads and 60 acres of industrial infrastructure in order to import petroleum products in train cars for transfer to tanker trucks, which would then leave the forest for destinations west, north, and south.
Heavy trucks are the dominant mode of transport in Poland, and also account for the most deaths of creatures within the park. That the project would increase the truck traffic on the park’s narrow roads by many degrees, and that their cargo would be much more dangerous than logs, greatly alarmed conservationists. Trucks transporting fuel have the highest accident rate among transport trucks, according to Korbel.
The new National Park Director Malgorzata Karas called the plan dangerous from the beginning. “We already have so much fuel transport on roads within the park, and we’ve lost many wolves to trucks,” she told me at the time.
What concerned activists further was the fact that the proposed plant was to be built within an area of secondary forest preferred by lynx, one of the park’s rarest denizens, with only about 20 or so thought to exist. Lynx suffer from lack of good habitat and low numbers of favored prey (roe deer), so for them to lose additional hunting ground would be a major blow.
When Lukoil’s critics raised these objections, the Narewka town council and mayor downplayed their concerns, citing the project’s potential economic benefits. News of the proposal spread quickly, though, and over several months it received a continued, withering critique as writers working for national magazines and newspapers in Warsaw and Krakow outlined all the reasons why the idea should be dead on arrival. Perhaps sensing a long battle and likely spooked by the looming economic recession, Lukoil withdrew its proposal in late 2008.
The Lukoil project proved to be yet another showcase for the urban/rural split in opinion when it comes to the forest. As is common in many countries, the further one lives from a natural area, the more likely it is that one will support its protection. So Bialowieza activists have relied on people and institutions in big cities, far from the forest, to make progress. Such was the case with the expansion victory in 1996, and again with the defeat of Lukoil in 2008.
“Bialowieza is as important as a billion-dollar physics lab, but a forest laboratory like this cannot be bought.”
Local determination is a core value in Polish politics, however, and the national government is loath to enforce rules that are unpopular with rural communities. Add to that a local control law (called Ustawa o Ochronie Przyrody, The Nature Protection Law) enacted after the 1996 expansion that gives local governments equal say in decisions regarding increased protection for conservation areas, and the result has been no new protections for the Bialowieza Forest as development and logging (both legal and illegal) continue largely unchecked. Park officials who oppose such activities routinely face retaliation. In one widely publicized case, a park ecologist was fired for protesting management plans that would have adversely affected the SPA.
Eunice Blavascunas, a PhD teaching fellow for the Program on the Environment at the University of Washington in Seattle has done research in the region since the mid-1990s and says that the foresters’ clout and the local control law have combined to thwart every effort since 1996 to expand national park protections in the forest. “The foresters’ argument is that the forest already receives protection under their model of sustainable forestry, and that local people would be further disenfranchised by added protections,” she says. “They see it as a well-managed forest, but they also see it as belonging to them.”
There are many who dispute the notion that a forest like this needs management at all, sustainable or otherwise. Bogdan Jaroszewicz is one. He’s the director of the Bialowieza Geobotanical Station, a research program of the University of Warsaw. In a recent phone interview, he was unequivocal. “This is one of the last lowland mixed deciduous old growth forests, not just in Europe, but in the Northern Hemisphere,” he said. “It’s also one of the best understood, with its processes having been researched since the end of the 18th century. Its importance compares with the new multi-billion dollar physics laboratory in Switzerland, for example, but a forest laboratory like this cannot be bought or developed. It is unique, and logging surely degrades its nature.”
It is this feeling that spurred Blavascunas in 2006 to join Janusz Korbel and several others in founding an international campaign to expand the park. Dubbed BISON (Bialowieza International Solidarity Network) in honor of the park’s popular mascot, the campaign was ambitious and effective. Partnering with World Wildlife Fund and others, it organized an international day of action in March of 2006 with rallies in front of Polish embassies in 22 countries. In addition to international headlines, many thousands of letters were generated asking Polish President Lech Kaczynski to expand the park boundaries to cover the entire Polish side of the forest.
In response, the president later that year created a commission to recommend better protection for the Bialowieza Forest. The commission, which Korbel served on, was immediately embroiled in grindingly slow consultations, caused in no small part by opposition from the national forest service and local communities. Legislation was eventually drafted, but it was doomed from the start thanks to weak political will on the issue both from Polish Parliamentarians and from the president’s office.
“You can’t keep a position where you just offer more and more money to your opponents.”
That the campaign’s failure to expand protections was due in no small part to the powerful voice of local communities frustrated BISON supporters. “It is not democratic that even the smallest local group has so much power in decisions about how a common good is used,” Korbel told me recently. He also pointed out that for their part, forestry interests ought not hold such sway, as the sector is not as important an employer as it once was. In the forest’s main tourist town, for example, just one large hotel, of which there are several, employs 150 people, which is as many as work in the entire region’s forestry sector.
No matter what side of the debate Poles are on, the forest is deeply important to the national identity. It is a source of pride that this World Heritage Site is in their country, and it’s spoken of as a validation of Poland’s wisdom and foresight that it acted to preserve it 600 years ago. The forest is also the subject of numerous works of art and poetry.
This pride is perhaps most often expressed in terms of tourism. The region’s numerous attractions and large hotels accommodate in excess of 100,000 visitors a year, and while such visits could potentially encourage greater commitment to stewardship, too often the place functions more as a backdrop for celebrating that cultural identity than as a place to learn about and appreciate the natural wonder of the forest. Concert venues, a bison zoo, nightclubs, and roads have proliferated. It’s also in vogue for city dwellers to own second homes here now, and so a large number of local people have sold their family farms and woodlots to make way for expensive new houses, adding to the forest’s habitat loss.
The story is somewhat different on the other side of the border, in Belarus, where tourism is much more constrained. Although the whole forest has national park status there, it is heavily cut and is ironically off limits to the public. President Alexander Lukashenko has allegedly built a large vacation retreat in the forest, complete with a rollerblading path. The one place where Belarus citizens can see the forest is at an unfortunate new theme park carved out of the park’s trees and featuring actors in Yule attire (including Father Christmas, portrayed by the former superintendent of the national park, now making better money). Tourists can get somewhat closer to the forest if they wander the grounds outside the village’s log buildings, where large statues of elves and reindeer, all hewn from old trees, are on display.
The seeming contradiction between pride and destruction can be puzzling. It has much to do with the profit motive, but it is also rooted in a deep belief that a primeval forest inherently includes human activities and always has. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence that Bialowieza has had its share.
Yet national surveys in Poland consistently show that most people want to see it protected in its entirety. The European Union, meanwhile, has kept its involvement fairly neutral, praising preservation efforts while rewarding forestry operations with generous subsidies. Whether it values board feet over biodiversity is not clear, but in late 2008, it paid for shiny new banners carrying confusing and contradictory messages about stewardship and good forestry jobs, which were strung across roadways in the main tourist town. In fairness, it’s likely that Brussels didn’t know much about this: They often fund educational efforts that are implemented by local groups, with little to no input or understanding from the European Commission.
Those Europeans who are aware of Bialowieza do value it and some have taken action for its protection through the BISON campaign. “Awareness of the forest is good amongst western Europeans who care about intact nature,” said Blavascunas, the UW researcher. “Many Germans, Dutch, Danes, and British visit it. It’s very impressive to people from these countries, where wild forests are rare and most trees grow in rows.” Still, the forest is seen more as a domesticated wilderness, like the Alps with its herds of cows. “What that often means is that people who want to experience ‘true wilderness’ go to Africa or North America instead.”
Non-European wilderness protection groups, through no fault of their own, have benefited from this bias. Gwen Barlee, policy director for Western Canada Wilderness Committee in Vancouver, Canada, says her group has had many European volunteers and interns over the years. They live in British Columbia for long periods of time, working for wilderness protection. “We get thousands of hours a year of volunteer help from people coming from places like the Netherlands,” she said.
Which is unfortunate, when the Bialowieza needs so much support. What if these same wilderness advocates also spent time working for the Bialowieza Forest’s protection? Certainly Europe is proud of its history of art, literature, architecture, and civics, but perhaps this lens should be expanded. What if the forest, beyond acting as a glimpse of the continent’s foggy past, could also be seen as an opportunity to engage with that biological richness and to inform a new ethic, a uniquely European concept of wilderness?
Recent events signal an opportunity to develop that potential. This September, the Bialowieza National Park hosted a conference dubbed Heritage Obliges – 600 Years of the Protection of Bialowieza Forest, which was chaired by Poland’s new Environment Minister, Maciej Nowicki, who came to town with a proposal that appears to have come directly out of the ashes of the BISON campaign. In exchange for an agreement to enlarge the park, the Minister offered local communities 30 million euros from the National Fund for Environmental Protection to spend on projects of their choosing, such as infrastructure and tourism promotion.
Under the plan, the park would be expanded to protect up to 46 percent of the Polish side of the forest, roughly a 300 percent increase, and logging would be curtailed to 30,000 cubic meters (12.7 million board feet) per year. Predictably, local politicians were stubbornly against it during the initial negotiations, even though all 150 state forestry employees would be transferred to the park with no job losses, and citizens would still be guaranteed access to firewood, mushrooms, and other forest products. As of this writing they are still holding out, bargaining for greater compensation.
Numerous environmental groups kept a constant presence outside the conference, including Greenpeace and regional organizations like The Workshop for All Beings, the Committee for Landscape Protection, and The Society for the Protection of Birds. At one point, the Minister left the negotiations to address the press and called the assembled environmentalists “the conscience of the nation,” which bolstered hope that he is sincerely in favor of expanding the park.
But is the proposal enough to truly protect the Bialowieza Forest? Jaroszewicz, the Geobotanical Research Station director is not sure. “It’s a half-step,” he said. “In my opinion, the entire forest requires protection. People would still be allowed many of the traditional uses, but we surely should not log this forest anymore. We have many forests in Poland that can be cut for wood and wood products. One can compare cutting the trees here to taking bricks from the king’s castle in Krakow to make new houses. We need bricks, of course, but we should produce them in modern factories.”
If the expansion proposal fails, another avenue is to argue against continued logging on behalf of animals like the three-toed woodpecker, a threatened species that thrives in Bialowieza. But research on how it and other animals are affected by logging is lacking, and in Poland there is no direct legislative mechanism like the US Endangered Species Act to enforce conservation mandates even if such supportive data existed. The local control law can also be challenged, new laws that prioritize conservation of common resources can be enacted, or more money can be found in national coffers to compensate the surrounding communities.
But for people like Janusz Korbel – who spends three or four days every week in the forest observing its features, creatures, and human impacts – it’s much more than a resource or a business proposition. “It is a place of great harmony, with millions of unseen interrelations,” he said. “It has great value, and that is what this campaign is about – values. You can’t keep a position where you just offer more and more money to your opponents.”
And he’s right. A lasting preservation effort is going to require that all stakeholders conclude that the Bialowieza Forest is worth more intact than its face value in timber or vacation homes.
Erik Hoffner is a freelance photojournalist based in Western Massachusetts. See more of his travels at www.erikhoffner.com.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.