Since May 2016, the Polish Ministry for the Environment has logged 200,000 cubic meters of the Białowieża forest, an activity the European Court of Justice (ECJ) now declares was illegal. In an about-face by the Polish government, its new Minister for the Environment, Henryk Kowalczyk, states he will honour the ruling, putting an end to a two-year conflict between his government and the European Commission.
The Białowieża forest straddles the border of Poland and Belarus. At 140,000 hectares, some of it 10,000-years-old, the Białowieża contains some of the oldest trees in Europe and is one of several diminishing habitats for European bison, wolves and lynx. In 2016, the Polish government’s then-Minister for the Environment, Jan Szyszko, announced logging would need to occur to prevent the spread of a bark beetle infestation, and tripled the harvest rate of managed areas. Environmentalists criticised the lack of ecological assessment and in July 2017 the ECJ called for a temporary halt of the logging. Poland ignored the injunction and in September Szyszko appealed the ban in Luxembourg, taking a jar of beetles with him. When he declared the logging would continue, it was seen as one of the most high-profile acts of defiance against the ECJ to date.
Thinning is an established technique of forestry management. It is used in managed forests worldwide as a way to keep more trees alive overall during a beetle outbreak. ‘The scientific literature in North America certainly supports that mortality levels can be reduced through thinning,’ says Jose Negron, an entomologist with the US Forestry Service. ‘The objective is often to reduce overall tree deaths and use the extracted resource,’ though he stresses ‘it is never used with the intent of stopping or controlling beetle populations, as this is an impossible task.’
Thinning takes place in US National Forests, however nature is left to take its course in wilderness areas and National Parks. Bark beetles are a natural part of the forest cycle, other ecologists argue, and allowing nature to take its course builds tree resistance in the long run. While 17 per cent of the Polish Białowieża forest is a National Park where logging is forbidden, debate raged over whether active forest management was necessary in the rest of the area, all of which comes under the EU Natura 2000 network of protected areas.
Concerning the beetles of Białowieża, the ECJ found the potential impact of increased logging was disproportionate to the outbreak. In a strongly worded statement, the court noted that Poland had not identified the beetle as a threat ‘in the slightest’ in the initial management outline, and found the Polish government was indiscriminate with its logging plans, which did ‘not contain restrictions relating to the age of the trees’. Overall, it found that Poland’s active forest management results in a loss for the Natura 2000 site and ‘failed to fulfil its obligations... Such operations cannot therefore, contrary to Poland’s submissions, constitute measures ensuring the conservation’ it concluded.
Though the increased harvest will end, it is likely that active forest management will continue to be a source of debate in Poland. Many NGOs and ecologists continue to campaign to put the majority of the Białowieża under National Park protections, as Belarus did in 2012.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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