The quiet of Europe’s last old-growth lowland forest is being interrupted by the whirr whirr whirr of chainsaws – and trees, some hundreds-of-years old, are coming down by government decree.
Loggers have entered Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland, a place home to wolves (Canis lupus), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), moose (Alces alces), red deer (Cervus elaphus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), and the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus).
Bialowieza, which means “white tower,” was also the staging ground for the slow and steady comeback of the continent’s biggest mammal, the European bison (Bison bonasus) and houses the world’s largest population of this megafauna.
In late March, Poland’s new far-right government announced a radically stepped-up plan to log inside Bialowieza, widely recognised as the only large stand of lowland trees on the continent that has never knowingly been logged due to once being hunting ground for royal Poles and Russian kings.
The new plan will allow loggers to harvest more than 180,000 cubic meters of wood from the forest over the next ten years, three-and-a-half times the original plan of 40,000 cubic meters. While the project will avoid logging inside Bialowieza National Park, it will cut large, old trees out of the ecosystem directly surrounding the small protected area.
“Every increase of logging in the Bialowieza Forest leads to loss of natural unique forest,” Rafał Kowalczyk, the director of the Mammal Research Institute in Bialowieza Forest, told Mongabay. He called the current plan a “catastrophe,” which targets tree stands over a hundred years and forests in wetlands.
But the Polish government, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, argues it is protecting the forest and tourists through its new logging plan. They say widespread, aggressive logging is necessary to combat a current infestation of spruce bark beetle. But scientists and environmentalists contend that the government is ignoring scientific findings and that this is just an excuse to access more wood from the forest.
“This outbreak, although it is making a large number of spruce trees die, is not a threat to their presence in the Bialowieza Forest, as the spruce regenerates naturally,” reads an open letter to the Polish government from 25 noted Polish scientists.
The letter further criticises claims made by Poland’s Environment Minister, Jan Szyszko, that Bialowieza Forest is a work of human hands. Szyskzo has a background in forestry, not environmental science.
We’ve appealed, sent letters, asked for meetings and protested. Also scientists and lawyers gave their statements, as well as over 140,000 Poles who signed a petition to Prime Minister Szydło to stop Minister Szyszko. Nothing worked.
Robert Cyglicki, head, Greenpeace Poland
“These views are inconsistent with the scientific knowledge and they undermine the uniqueness of the Bialowieza Forest and its World Heritage site status, thereby tarnishing the image of the Polish nature and Poland’s image in the world,” write the scientists. “In addition, they undermine the scientific reliability and contradict the results of long-term studies carried out in the Bialowieza Forest.”
Kowalczyk said that in a natural forest, instead of a managed one, a bark beetle outbreak “is a natural process, [a] sign of the health of the forest. It leads to death of some trees but creates favorable conditions for other trees and organisms.”
He also said the idea that foresters could stop this current outbreak was wrong.
“There is a lot of scientific evidence that foresters are not able to control bark beetle outbreaks. Only removing over 80 per cent of infected trees may reduce [the] scale of [the] outbreak.” But he said such a drastic step would be impossible given that around 36 percent of the forest is protected in the national park and various reserves. He said the foresters want to “start exploitation” of Bialowieza Forest in order to “improve their economic result.”
Indeed, the Guardian reports that around half of the trees targeted are not even spruce. The dead spruce, infested and rotting, is practically worthless in terms of economic value on the market for uses other than fuel (it is not, however, worthless to the insects and birds that depend on them). Yet, wood from many of the other large, old trees in Bialowieza could bring in significant funds.
At 10,500 hectares Bialowieza National Park only covers around 16 per cent of the forest inside Poland. Another 20 per cent of the forest remains protected in various reserves. But this means the vast majority of the forest is still open to logging.
The Bialowieza ecosystem doesn’t just belong to Poland; it also extends over the border into Belarus, which has protected its whole portion of the forest in a larger protected area. UNESCO recognizes 141,885 hectares as core area and a buffer zone covering 166,708 hectares as a World Heritage Site. But even as Belarus houses more forest, Poland sees the bulk of tourists with around 120,000 people visiting Bialowieza National Park every year.
Bialowieza Forest is home to 59 mammal species, 20 kinds of amphibians and reptiles, and more than 250 bird species. Over 12,000 different invertebrates have been recorded. It also houses nearly a 1,000 species of vascular plants, 600 mosses and lichens, and more than 3,000 species of fungi. One of the reasons the forest remains so biodiverse is that Bialowieza, unlike many heavily managed forests in Europe today, is full of dead, rotting wood, including the spruce being devoured today by bark beetles.
“Dying spruce are very important for the forest…and allows the forest to adapt to [a] changing climate,” Kowalczyk said, explaining that over time scientists expect warmer-adapted deciduous trees to replace most of the spruce in Bialowieza as the effects of climate change intensify.
“Spruce is still common in the forest and regenerates well in more wet habitats.”
He also noted that logging will decrease habitat for Bialowieza’s big mammals. Logged-over areas will be replanted and fenced to avoid any browsing by bison or deer.
Bialowieza is perhaps most well known as a vital part of the story of the European bison. The species would be extinct today if not for the forest. By the late 1920s the species was hunted to obliteration in the wild, but conservationists were able to stage a slow and steady comeback from just 12 individuals in zoos, 11 of which came from Bialowieza.
In 1952, the first European bison ever to be reintroduced were freed inside Bialowieza in Poland. Today, there are 2,300 free-ranging bison in Europe—all ancestors of the last bison of Bialowieza—and some 900 bison living inside Bialowieza itself, the largest community of European bison on the planet and a big draw for tourists.
In order to push the logging plan forward, the government has allegedly dismissed the accusations of all of its critics. Last month, the Polish government got rid of 32 of 39 total members of the State Council for Nature Conservation as reported by the Guardian who were critical of the logging. They were subsequently replaced by pro-loggers and government supporters.
In addition to the Polish scientific community, the ongoing logging is widely opposed by local activists and conservation groups.
“Our position is the same as is presented by [the] scientists,” said Dariusz Gatkowski with WWF-Poland. He said Poland should return to the hard-fought plan from 2012, which allowed logging levels slightly above what was desired by people in local villages for fuel wood.
Seven groups—including WWF and Greenpeace—have complained jointly to the European Commission about the drastic increase in logging. As a Nautra 2000 site, Bialowieza Forest is protected not just by Poland but by the whole of Europe.
Robert Cyglicki, the head of Greenpeace Poland, said the groups did all they could to convince Poland before turning to the European Commission.
“We’ve appealed, sent letters, asked for meetings and protested. Also scientists and lawyers gave their statements, as well as over 140,000 Poles who signed a petition to Prime Minister Szydło to stop Minister Szyszko. Nothing worked.”
But the battle likely isn’t over. Before logging started, Marianna Hoszowska, a spokesperson for Greenpeace-Poland said that the group would have activists on the ground.
“Together with Dzika Polska Foundation, we [will] run so called ‘Forest Patrols,’ closely monitoring the situation in the Forest. We [will] bear witness and document everything that happens but at this point we cannot disclose any more detailed information about our planned activities.”
Greenpeace would like to see Bialowieza’s national park status spread across the entirety of the forest in Poland, just as it is in Belarus.
“But within the park there should be different zones and part of the tree stands should be used for local purposes,” Cyglicki, the head of Greenpeace Poland, told Radio Poland. He said this proposal, which was supported by late Polish President Lech Kaczyński, would include the “interest of the local communities with the…preservation of this unique ecosystem.”
Cyglicki noted that if Bialowieza were better protected, it could become one of the standout treasures in Europe.
“We believe [it]…can become a symbol of the modern preservation of nature in Europe, the same as Serengeti in Africa or Yellowstone in America. We want to see Bialowieza as a national park, very well known, very famous, and at the same time well preserved for the next generations.”
A team from UNESCO plans to visit the forest this month to assess the situation. Meanwhile, activists and scientists await word from the European Commission. But in the background, the whirr of chainsaws persists.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com