- Bialoweiza Forest straddles Poland and Belarus and is Europe’s largest remaining lowland old growth forest, home to wildlife that has disappeared from much of the rest of Europe. In March 2016, the government approved a plan to triple industrial logging in Poland’s Bialoweiza forest. The government argued it was the only way to combat a spruce bark beetle outbreak, but environmentalists believed that was largely an excuse to give access to the state-run logging regime.
- According to watchdog organizations, loggers cut 190,000 cubic meters of wood in 2017. This amounts to around 160,000-180,000 trees and affects an area of about 1,900 hectares. It also represents the most trees cut in the forest in any one year since 1987 when Poland was under a communist government.
- In May 2018, Europe’s highest court ruled the logging illegal, noting that the government’s own documents showed that logging was a bigger threat than the beetles, which are a part of natural, cyclical process that is likely exacerbated by climate change. Poland, threatened with high fines, backed down—and the logging stopped.
- Activists and environmentalists are calling for expanding national park status – which currently applies to just a small portion of Poland’s portion of the forest – over its entirety. But they worry a government panel of experts will once again push to open Bialoweiza to logging.
But for the rumble of frogs or the song of a bluethroat, Bialowieza Forest in Poland has become quiet again after two years of heavy machinery, chainsaws and falling trees. But it’s not the same forest as it was before the drastic explosion in logging began—and it will likely take decades, if not longer, to recover. So, activists say now is the time to call for the Bialowieza National Park to be extended across the entire ecosystem.
“The entire Forest of Bialowieza must become a national park. It is [the] most valuable forest [in] Poland and lowland Europe, the home of unique species of animals, plants and fungi,” said Krzysztof Cibor, a spokesperson for Greenpeace- Poland. “We cannot lose this treasure.”
The logging bonanza
The firestorm over Bialowieza—which tested the European Union—began over two years ago. In March of 2016, then-Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyzko approved a plan to triple industrial logging in Poland’s Bialoweiza forest. The government argued it was the only way to combat a spruce bark beetle outbreak, but environmentalists believed that was largely an excuse to give access to the state-run logging regime. Two months later the government dismissed 32 scientists from an advisory board for their opposition to the plan. Although the logging plan spared the national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site portion of Bialoweiza, it targeted the remaining unprotected forest, which comprises the majority of the ecosystem in Poland.
In July of 2016, the EU took Poland to court over the logging plan. The next January, the author of the logging policy, Szyzko, was sacked. Then, in May of this year, Europe’s highest court ruled the logging illegal, noting that the government’s own documents showed that logging was a bigger threat than the beetles, which are a part of natural, cyclical process that is likely exacerbated by climate change. Poland, threatened with high fines, backed down—and the logging stopped.
The issue proved particularly contentious due to Bialoweiza’s unique place in Europe. It is the last—the very last—large lowland, old-growth forest on the continent. While there are other old growth forests in Europe —mostly in Finland—none of them are quite like Bialoweiza.
“The area has exceptionally [high] conservation significance due to the scale of its old-growth forests, which include extensive undisturbed areas where natural processes are on-going including bark beetle outbreaks and natural cycles,” said Adam Bohdan, a biologist with the Wild Poland Foundation. “A consequence is the richness in dead wood, standing and on the ground, and consequently a high diversity of fungi and saproxylic invertebrates.”
Saproxylic refers on animals dependent on dead or decaying wood for survival. This isn’t just a rich fauna of beetles and fungi; Bialoweiza is also one of the best places on the continent to be a woodpecker.
The forest is also home to wolves and lynx (bears were wiped out decades ago) and 30 percent of the world’s free-roaming European bison – the largest mammal on the continent and one that nearly went extinct.
But logging undercuts all these species – and the ecological integrity of the forest as a whole. Logs were sold, according to Bohdan, with protected species still clinging under the bark.
Loggers cut 190,000 cubic meters last year “more then half of them [in the]…oldest and most valuable parts of the forest,” Cibor said. This amounts to around 160,000-180,000 trees and affects an area of about 1,900 hectares, according to Greenpeace. It also represents the most trees cut in the forest in any one year since 1987 when Poland was under a communist government.
“Foresters logged 400% of the planned, annual amount,” Bohdan said.
Although, the logging plan was meant to extend to 2021, loggers cut more trees in 2017 in Bialoweiza than the quota set in the Forest Management Plan for the full term. In two other logging areas—also within the wider ecosystem—the quota up to 2021 was nearly met by the end of last year.
Cibor says this “means that they cannot cut more trees without breaking the law during the next three years.”
Even worse than the logging, he contends, would be if the government replants the forest, essentially turning areas into a plantation rather than a natural ecosystem.
“Our aim is to enlarge [the] national park on the whole area of the forest,” Bohdan said. “More and more local people support this idea, some of them are local leaders and will be candidates in local elections.”
He believes this goal is “realistic” in the current political climate.
Currently the national park in Poland only covers around 10,500 hectares, whereas Poland’s entire portion of the forest covers about six times that. Bialowieza Forest receives far more protection across the border in Belarus, where the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve covers 216,200 hectares – twenty times larger than Poland’s national park area – with 150,069 hectares designated as a national park.
Expert panel – history repeating?
As activists and environmentalists call for expanding national park status over the whole of Poland’s Bialoweiza Forest, the Environment Ministry is taking a cautious approach. The new minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, has brought together an expert team of 29 individuals to study the logging controversy and provide counsel.
“The Minister of Environment will take further decisions concerning the protection of the Białowieża Forest based on the expert team’s recommendations,” a government spokesperson said.
However, Bohdan says the “optimism” felt when Kowalczyk was first appointed has largely evaporated. He says that Kowalczyk has already promised foresters that the park would not be expanded. Bohdan also says that the expert panel is made up largely of people who advised previous Environment Minister, Sysko, on increasing logging.
“Biologists were not invited,” he said. “Therefore we as an NGO [have] refused [to participate] in this team.”
Cibor, with Greenpeace, worries as well that the board has been stacked with pro-foresters.
“It doesn’t look like a real improvement,” he said.
The real problem may be cultural, according to Lukasz Mazurek, a co-owner of the tourism company Wild Poland and an expert guide.
“Not much is likely to change unless we address the root causes of the conflict. Forestry still pays much higher salaries than the national park and offers higher social status, as it is perceived in the local community. If it doesn’t change locals will always favor [the] state forestry company,” he explained, pointing to a 2016 paper published in Forestry Research Papers.
Mazurek says that the logging has taken a toll on his tourism business. At first, business actually went up because, he believes, of the news coverage.
But “this spring we were surprised to see so few tourists around,” he said. “Tourism has been a lot more difficult…as large areas of the forest became off limits and many forest tracks remain closed for traffic.”
For guides like Mazurek, an intact, thriving, and, yes, quiet forest is everything.