An ancient Polish forest is coming down. Why?

Poland says a portion of the Bialowieza forest must be logged to curb a bark beetle outbreak but environmentalists disagree. 

Vanessa Gera/AP/File
Dead trees lie on the ground in the Bialowieza National Park, a protected part of the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland in August 2006. Poland’s government has sparked a conflict with scientists and conservationists with a plan to significantly increase logging there, the best preserved relic of an ancient forest that once covered the lowlands of Europe and Russia.

The Polish government began a logging push in the ancient, mysterious Bialowieza forest this week.

On the border of Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest measures 58.76 square miles – more than half the size of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. And half of the forest is considered pristine, meaning it has not experienced human intervention since the last ice age 8,000 to 9,000 years ago. Bialowieza is also home to the largest population of European bison and some of the continent’s tallest trees. 

The importance of Bialowieza’s preservation has been recognized internationally. Although the forest was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, only the Belarus portion of the forest has total protection. Poland’s portion of the forest is designated as a Natura 2000 site by the European Union, but nationally the country has only designated 35 percent as a national park and reserve where human interference is strictly prohibited.

But the Polish government says 188,000 cubic meters of trees will be logged to “correct the situation” after a bark beetle infestation has spread to 10 percent of all local spruce trees.

“We are facing a disaster,” chief forester Dariusz Skirko tells Deutsche Welle. “We are stepping up what we call active protection measures. One tree attacked by the beetle can lead to the infestation of thirty other trees within just one year.” 

But the forest has undergone numerous stresses during its long life, including bark beetles, say some environmentalists.

“Bark beetle is a natural phenomenon, natural occurrence, and it appears in Bialowieza Forest regularly. Actually, bark beetle is an important factor of [its] natural life cycle,” Greenpeace Poland activist Katarzyna Jagiello tells The Christian Science Monitor. “BF is perfectly capable of regrowing naturally and we can observe this… It should not be treated as a managed forest – there is a clear difference between natural and managed forests. In natural forests we protect biological cycles, there is no notion of pests – pests belong only to production.”

In a letter to the Polish government, scientists from Oxford and Harvard Universities say the logging plan will not help Bialowieza recover from bark beetles, but will instead transform the wild forest into yet another man-managed forest. Felling trees now will “inevitably destroy the potential of these sites to recover naturally after the outbreak” and turn a natural heritage site into a “typical plantation forest.” And not only is Poland breaking compliance with international conventions by logging in the forest, add the authors, but it is also foregoing the long-term revenue source from tourism for immediate logging revenue. 

“Look at this dead spruce tree! It is probably more alive now than it ever was because so many creatures are now living on it,” Rafal Kowalczyk, director of the Mammal Research Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences, tells The Guardian. “There are nearly 100 invertebrate species that it gives life to. Woodpeckers are searching the bark for larvae, and there is space for spiders and fungi. The tree is dead, but the forest is alive and it will regenerate.” 

Environmentalists argue that the logging is encouraged by political – not ecological – motives. After President Andrzej Duda was elected last year, Poland’s new, far right government has issued a variety of reforms including changes in the environmental sector. 

In what some are calling an “environmental coup,” environment minister Jan Szyszko fired 32 of the government’s 39 conservation experts and replaced them with foresters and hunters who support the logging plan. 

Activists say the government’s revenue motives are made obvious by tagging non-spruce trees for felling and also spruce trees that are unaffected by the beetle. 

“It is foresters that are [a] threat to this great treasure of Europe,” adds Jagiello, “and it should be declared our Serengeti or Virunga forest, our Yellowstone.”

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