The Polish government has announced that it will open up large tracts of Europe’s last primeval forest for commercial logging, with both international and local conservation groups and scientists coming out in strong opposition to the plans.
The Białowieża forest covers some 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles), straddling the border between Poland and Belarus. It is thought to have stood for millennia, and while there is some dispute as to whether or not parts of it have been cut down before, it is generally assumed that it has never been completely cleared since the end of the last ice age. This makes the forest a unique environment on the continent as the last standing remnant of primeval forest, giving us a glimpse at what the rest of Europe would have looked like 10,000 years ago.
The forest is home to the largest free-roaming herd of European bison, once almost driven to extinction. Francesco Carrani/Flickr CC BY 2.0
The forest is unlike any seen in the rest of Europe, an ecosystem straight out of the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, a tangle of trees and bushes shrouded in mist as broken sunlight filters through the tallest trees that remain standing in Europe. It is home to some 20,000 species, including over 120 breeding birds, many of which were lost to the rest of Europe when forests were felled and managed for forestry. With 62 species of mammals calling the forest home, including wolves and lynx, it is also one of the few places where the continent's heaviest land mammal, the European bison, still roams wild.
Yet, while all of the Białowieża forest on the Belarusian side is protected, only a small fraction of that in Poland is designated as a National Park, given a UNESCO world heritage site status in 1979. The country had already given the green light to the harvest of 48,000 cubic meters (1.7 million cubic feet) of wood by local communities, but while this quota was meant to last until 2021, it has already almost been reached. Now, the Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko has given the approval to up the volume that can be taken over the same period to at least 180,000 cubic meters (6.4 million cubic feet).
Rotting wood is a critical component of the ecosystem in the Białowieża forest, supporting many species wiped out in the rest of Europe. Frank Vassan/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Szyszko claims that the increase in harvest is in a bid to help tackle a species of beetle that has been causing damage to some of the trees. Spruce bark beetles burrow under the bark of some species of spruce and lay their eggs, which then hatch and start feeding on the wood of the tree. Szyszko says that it is due to a lack of management that the beetle is now a major issue. “We’re acting to curb the degradation of important habitats, to curb the disappearance and migration of important species from this site,” says Szyszko.
But conservationists and ecologists dispute this. Greenpeace Polska has released a statement saying that the decision by Szyszko is “inconsistent with the opinion of key scientific bodies in Poland, including National Council for the Conservation of Nature, the Scientific Council of the Białowieża National Park, [and the] Nature Conservation Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences.” They argue that the rotting dead wood produced as the trees die is critical for the forest’s survival, and one of the key elements that make the region so special and able to support so many species. The fact that it hasn’t been managed for thousands of years is what gives the forest such incredible value.