Poland’s environment ministry has a plan for a huge increase in logging in Europe’s last great primeval forest, writes Zachary Davies Boren. Officials claim it’s to control bark beetles. But ecologists say the insects are regulated naturally within the forest ecosystem, while logging threatens huge damage to irreplaceable biodiversity.

One of Europe’s oldest forests is under threat from a new logging initiative backed by Poland’s Environment Ministry.

Bialowieza Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans 1,600 square kilometres at the Polish-Belarusian border, is one of the most biodiverse spots on the continent – 32% is protected by government regulations, but only 17% is part of the national park.

Now the Polish Environment Minister Jan Szsyszko is moving to rubber stamp a plan that would enable forest authorities to dramatically increase logging operations.

It comes four years after the passage of a popular policy allowing very limited logging in the beloved Bialowieza Forest – a policy that has been disregarded by authorities, who have blown through their 10-year-limit in one of the three Forest Districts in less than half that time.

Loggers have justified the increased activity by claiming they’re trying to control a bark beetle outbreak that would impede future timber extraction. But scientists say it will likely die down naturally in the next two years and that the beetle shouldn’t be treated like a pest since it is a key part of the forest’s ecosystem.

The current policy allows for an 10-year timber harvest of 48.5 thousand cubic metres. The proposed update would increase that number eightfold – permitting a harvest of 317.9 thousand cubic metres for the remaining six years.

Eeurope’s last great primeval forest

Why is this forest worth protecting? Campaigners describe it as “the last large remaining fragment of the primeval deciduous forest of the northern temperate zone in Europe.”

It’s by far the largest remnant of the original post-glacial forest that once covered most of northeast Europe, and remained almost untouched into medieval times. It was then claimed by successive Polish monarchs and Russian Tsars as a hunting reserve, and its unique population of European bison was long protected for that reason.

The forest is home to an hugely diverse population of plants (5,500) and animals (11,500), as well as large carnivores such as wolves and lynxes and rare nesting songbirds, woodpeckers, and owls.

Its free-ranging European bison were killed off completely under the German occupation in World War I, but a new herd was re-established in the 1920s from surviving animals in zoos and private parks. It is now the largest such population in the world, numbering some 800.

Forest Management Plan ignored by loggers

The logging matter seemed to be settled back in 2012 when, under pressure from organisations including the European Commission, the Environment Ministry passed a raft of regulations designed to protect the region, entitled the Forest Management Plan.

The Forest Management Plan separated the forest into three territories, gave each with its own inspectorate, introduced more stringent limits on logging, and gave official protection to the forest’s oldest trees. That plan, however, has not been enforced.

In order to comply with the plan, logging would have to cease in one of the three districts immediately, with loggers hitting their 10-year harvest limit in just four years. And at the current rate, they would have to stop chopping down trees in the other two districts in the next two years. But neither of those things is actually going to happen.

Instead it is feared that the Polish Ministry of Environment will adapt the Forest Management Plan to fit the objectives of the Forest Administration, allowing a dramatic increase in logging in one of the districts (eight times greater than the 2012 version) and lifting protections for the centennial trees.

Bark beetles are no threat. They are part of the ecosystem!

The rationale for this policy u-turn is the need for “active management” so that the forest doesn’t succumb to bark beetles and fires, according to Polish authorities. Environment Minister Jan Szyszko has argued that the conservation-friendly version of the Management Plan has led to forest degradation and deterioration that threatens the delicate habitat.

However, scientists and nature groups are saying the current bark beetle outbreak is a completely natural cycle, a consequence of the spring climate, drought conditions and spatial configuration of spruce stands.

Not only that but it is playing a vital part in the forest’s development, providing better conditions for a handful of different types of woodlands and the creatures (mostly birds) that depend on them.

“Bark beetles are forest engineers, shaping the long-term dynamics and structure of the forest, on which many species, like the three toed-woodpecker, and numerous species saproxylic beetles, depend upon”, explains the I Love Bialowieza website.

“The forest ecosystem is more than adult trees in an even-aged stand. Treating bark beetle as a pest from a forestry perspective to produce timber, is not justified in the context of the protection of biological diversity and ecological processes, particularly in the case of Bialowieza Forest.”

Instead what the proposed increase in logging will do is destroy these habitats and undermine a range of conservation goals. Controlling the outbreak – which probably will collapse in 1-2 years without any intervention – is not possible without infringement of the Habitats Directive, warns ILB.

Among the organisations that have come out against this new logging policy are the State Council for Nature Conservation, the Nature Conservation Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Council of the Bialowieza National Park, as well as many individual scientists from all over Poland and world.

Poland’s public outcry is going global

There is also a problem with popular opinion at home. The Polish people are pretty protective of Bialowieza, with 250,000 people signing a challenge to the original, much gentler, logging rules.

The government refused to bring the proposed nature protection amendment to a vote in parliament and last year the civic initiative expired.

To fight the proposed update, Poles have taken to the streets, holding some of the largest environmental protests the country has ever seen. There’s also a petition, signed by over 100,000 people in less than a month.