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Poland's culture war opens a new front: forest hunting grounds

Understanding the divide

Both hunters and ecologists say that their values are under assault from each other, as Warsaw weighs changes to access of private lands for hunting and new logging in Poland's forests.

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    Zenon Kruczyński, an ex-hunter turned activist, stands in Białowieza National Park in eastern Poland. Mr. Kruczyński is a member of Workshop for All Beings, one of the nongovernmental organizations that sent a complaint to the European Commission against logging in the Bialowieza Forest.
    Monika Rebala
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Tadeusz Kroker and Zenon Kruczyński thrive in the thick woodland that covers Poland – one comparing it to a theater, the latter a place to forget one’s worries.

But that’s where the similarities between the hunter and former hunter end. And their differing visions for the future of animal rights, land protection, and environment is pitting them against one another in the latest cultural war to erupt here: over Poland’s natural habitats.

The Polish parliament is penning a new hunting bill to establish new rules for access to private land and possibly to handguns, while environmentalists lodged a complaint Tuesday against logging in Poland’s last primeval forest. And amid the changes both Mr. Kroker and Mr. Kruczyński say they worry that their values could be trampled – the former because the verbal attacks against hunters have never been so furious, and the latter because the hunting lobby has never been so strong.

When Law & Justice (PiS) swept into power in October with enough votes to lead the government alone without a coalition, it was a clear statement about the desire for change in Polish society. But after a half year in power, deep fissures have formed in the political and media arenas, on the streets, and even around dinner tables on everything from justice, to the European Union, to abortion – and now Polish forests.

A new hunting bill has been in the works since the term of the previous government, led by the liberal, EU-friendly Civic Platform, after the Constitutional Court ruled that the current bill, dating from 1995, doesn’t protect the rights of landowners. (As it currently stands, Poles can hunt on private land without asking permission.)

Even under Civic Platform, the bill was hunter-friendly. Six of seven committee members who worked on the bill were hunters themselves, and the draft would have required landowners to file a request to court to forbid hunters from stepping on their land because of religious or moral beliefs.

When PiS came into power, it drafted its own bill, following the lead of Civic Platform. But it included one controversial issue: easy access to handguns. The new bill should have been voted on by January under the court ruling. But it was withdrawn instead that month with no public reason given, leaving both hunters and activists on the defense about what their vision for hunters and the environment is.

A sport under siege?

Tomasz Kulesza, president of the Polish Hunting Association in the Przemyśl district, who was the Civic Platform lawmaker and head of the subcommittee that worked on the previous hunting bill, says that hunters love nature and know how to take care of it. We also educate kids about nature, we tell them the real story, how wild animals really live, not the fake one presented by the ‘pseudo-ecologist,’ ” he says.

He says that hunting, once only accessible to kings and magnates, was an elitist hobby. “Now almost anyone can be a member of the [hunting association],” he says.

The numbers of hunters has gone up steadily, from 100,000 Poles with licenses in 2000 to 116,000 currently, says Mr. Kulesza. Yet hunters perceive they are increasingly rejected: A 2015 government poll found that 65.5 percent of hunters said society doesn’t accept their sport.

If their rights are bolstered by the government, the voice of the protesters will grow louder – and the gap between both camps wider. Ecologists on Tuesday lodged a complaint with the European Commission in Brussels against extensive logging in Białowieża – sure to anger those locals who say they depend on the forest for their livelihoods.

Hunters 'on the defensive'

Those against the bill worry that on the issue of guns, a sport that is already violent will become more so, at a time when Europe is trying to restrict access to arms amid terror threats. “It's total nonsense to say that hunters need handguns,” says Kruczyński. “If they can't kill the animal with a rifle it means that they can't use the gun properly, and they could pose a threat to other people and themselves.”

But guns are not the only issue that is dividing the two camps right now. Hunters largely say that they are increasingly misunderstood on all fronts.

Kroker drives up a muddy path in the forests outside of Przemyśl in southeastern Poland. It’s not hunting season, but this day he’s checking on the feed and salt licks they’ve left out for the animals during the winter respite.

Kroker was the first in his family to hunt, falling accidentally into the sport as a state forester who fell in love first with the scenery and then with the chase, particularly of the boar, which draws hunters to Poland from across Europe. Forty years later, he is still hooked on hunting. He says each player has its part and the sound of the forest is to him like music. “It’s like theater for me,” he says.

But hunting has become ever more fraught, he says. Ecologists have increasingly harassed hunters, going in groups to the woods to disturb animals and stymie hunters. “We are increasingly on the defensive by ecologists,” he says. And while he says he personally isn’t fighting to carry a handgun – and in fact worries that it’s polarized the debate unnecessarily – he is worried the government will make it harder for hunters to access private land as they so easily do now.

Protecting the woods

Far to the north in Białowieża National Forest, located on the Polish-Belarussian border, Kruczyński says he is worried about the reverse response from the government. Jan Szyszko, the minister of environment; Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s husband; and Konrad Tomaszewski, who is the director of state forests, are all hunters themselves.

Kruczyński understands the appeal like no one else, born into a family of hunters and having accompanied his father on his first hunt at age 8. “You are in the woods for two to three days with your friends and you totally switch off, don't care about anything, you forget about all your problems,” he says.

His turn towards activism, while a process, came definitively 20 years ago, when he was walking in the woods and suddenly saw stray dogs chasing the doe he hoped to shoot. “And just like that, without thinking I shot the dog because I didn't want him to hurt the doe,” he says. “After that I stopped hunting and sold my gun. It has been more than 20 years now.”

Now he rails against the lead that seeps into groundwater with bullets, he says; about the gathering spots that hunters use to lure animals, which he calls murder; and, above all today, about government plans to harvest four times the amount of trees from Białowieża Forest than is currently allowed. Authorities are facing a bark beetle outbreak, but environmentalists claim the government is just looking for an excuse to pander to foresters in the ancient woodland, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kruczyński says that hunters are especially watching this debate in his region. “If the government cuts down thousands of trees it might be the end of the wild forest; that means that hunters will be able to hunt even in the place where now the national park is,” he says.

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