Written by Tomasz Cholaś, translated by Judyta Lewa and edited by Peter Ashford
Pictures by Piotr Grudzinski
“Massacre in the Białowieża forest continues”, “Eco-activists forcibly removed by the police”, “Logging will save the forest”, “Eco-terrorists responsible for the death of the Białowieża forest”. These sample titles from the Polish press show emotions provoked in Poland by the felling that took place between March 2016 and April 2018 on the territory of the Białowieża forest, a Polish-Belarussian forest complex with enormous in the world scale nature conservation value. In the survey from August 2017, 59% of Polls were against the logging, 20% were in favour and 21% had no opinion.
The logging was authorized by the Polish Minister of Environment, Jan Szyszko, who justified it by the increasing number of trees infested by the bark beetle. This 5-millimeter beetle digs tunnels in the bark and cambium of weakened trees, mainly spruces, damaging tissues that transport the life-giving juices. A tree attacked by beetles dies within a short period of time. In commercial forests the bark beetle is considered as a pest, because it threatens the wood production. The foresters fight against it by cutting down infested trees and removing them from the forest, before the beetle manages to infest the next trees. The thing is the Białowieża forest is not a standard commercial forest…
The Białowieża forest is the last part of a natural forest, with primeval character, that centuries ago covered the European lowlands. 200 km to the East from Warsaw, at the border with Belarus (almost 58% of the forest is located on the Belarussian side), on a territory of about 62 thousand ha, a real treasure is hidden. “This forest has existed continuously since the last glaciation, i.e. for the last 12,000 years, of course undergoing dynamic changes”, says Rafał Kowalczyk from the Polish Academy of Sciences. “The forest has been exploited by the human, however, to a minimal extent. The human influence affected only about 10–15% of its area and did not cause a deforestation”, he adds. This is the only natural area in Poland listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is a miracle the forest has survived.
It owes it to the bison. Because of them, it was protected at first by Polish kings, later by Russian tsars. It was one of the few places (in the last several hundred years) where the bisons survived. In the 19th and 20th century the bisons were observed only in the Białowieża forest and in the Caucasus. “The bisons contributed to the protection of the Białowieża forest and the forest provided protection and survival to the bisons”, adds Rafał Kowalczyk, highlighting this unique symbiosis. Today in Poland there are about 1,900 bisons (out of almost 6,600 all over the world), and over 650 of them are to be found in the Polish part of the Białowieża forest. This is the largest population of bisons in the world ,living in the wild. Barbara Żukowska, my colleague from National Geographic Traveller, who is also a guide in the forest, told me about her meetings with bisons. “Sometimes, something that from a distance seemed like a fallen tree turned out to be a bison. Recently some tourists told me that they were going through the forest with a guide and suddenly, a few meters from them, the bison stood up. It was simply lying and they did not notice it. Both parties were surprised.”
The best-preserved part of the forest was covered with protection.The created Białowieża National Park constitutes one sixth of the Polish part of the forest (10.5 thousand ha). About 12,000 ha were included into the nature reserves, and the remaining part was converted into commercial forests governed by the Polish State Forests (ca. 39.5 thousand ha). To compare, the whole Belarussian area of the forest is covered by the national park. The Białowieża forest belongs to the Natura 2000 site as a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and Site of Community Importance. “The Białowieża forest is our window into the evolutionary past – of ecosystems, species. Maybe it is not a dinosaur, but it is a living mammoth”, claims Przemysław Chyralecki, Professor of the Museum and Institute of Zoology, Polish Academy of Sciences. “This ecosystem functioning like centuries ago brings us knowledge necessary to protect species, not only in the Białowieża forest”, adds Chyralecki. 250 bird species have been identified in the refuge, out of which 153 are breeding species (67% of the breeding avifauna in Poland). The refuge is in particular rich with nesting birds of prey, owls and woodpeckers – the flagship species include collared flycatcher, white-backed woodpecker, three-toed woodpecker, Eurasian pygmy owl, and boreal owl.
Every 5–8 years in the Białowieża forest a mass spruce wilting takes place caused by an increase in the bark beetle population (so-called beetle gradation)
It is a natural phenomenon and the forest has always successfully dealt with it. Barbara Żukowska revokes an example of spruce forest in the northern part of the strict nature reserve of the Białowieża forest infested by the beetle. The spruces withered and fell down, but soon young trees appeared. “Deer, roes or moose did not enter this area, as in such a tree rubble they would easily get caught by the wolves. On the other hand, the animals did not eat plant shoots, so the trees could grow back again”, says Żukowska. The recent gradation is, however, much greater than ever before. One of the reasons is the persistent drought which weakens the shallow spruce root system. Another problem is the too large amount of the spruce planted by foresters for commercial reasons. The foresters say, “Let’s save all we can by cutting down the sick trees”. Eco-activists: “Let the forest act on its own”. Foresters: “If we will not take any actions, we will lose the whole forest”. Eco-activists: “The Białowieża forest will become a normal forest, if we will chop down the trees”.
In a natural forest there are no harmful species, there is no division between the useful ones and the unuseful ones, wanted and unwanted. All have a function in the ecosystem. More beetles mean more food for the three-toed woodpecker, a very rare bird in Poland (only 200 breeding pairs live altogether in the Carpathian Mountains and Białowieża forest) settling only in the natural tree stands. They build their nests in the hollows excavated in dead or dying spruce trunks. Therefore, they avoid commercial forests from where such trees are quickly removed. Also, the menu of a very useful for the forest (due to eating pests) ant beetle includes bark beetles. Moreover, dead tree gives shelter to other birds, bats, invertebrates and fungi.
A lot of controversies arose also around the logging method. Large machines (harvesters) enter the forest damaging the undergrowth
“Harvester provides greater safety to forest workers – it is operated by only one person, who is protected by the reinforced cab. Harvesters allow to perform the same job, but quicker. Also, foresters will be able to quickly make available the secured area to the tourists and local citizens” , as can be read on the website of the Białowieża Forest District. According to eco-activists this treatment is much worse than the disease itself. The logging takes place in the spring and summer, when there are many young animals in the forest, e.g. nestlings in the hollows. They are continuously run over by logging machines and tractors removing the wood. Other animals run away frightened by the machine noise. Sławomir Droń, social activist from the organisation Locals for the Forest, was scandalized: “Even some foresters support us privately. Because they are also shocked, they have never seen such a scale of logging before. Harvesters entering the forest? The natural forest? What Szyszko does is a murder. We do not understand this.”
Part of local society supported the government’s actions. Many of them are employed by the State Forests and were afraid to lose their jobs. On the other hand, many locals run guesthouses for the tourists. And tourists are not attracted by a forest equally planted by the foresters, but by a natural forest. When the number of tourists dropped due to the logging and prohibited access to the forest, the revenues of the locals also went down. “One hotel in Białowieża employs as many workers as three forest districts, and the money from logging is not getting to the local societies, but to the State Forests. The locals benefit from the tourists and the money they spend here”, says Rawał Kowalczyk, PhD.
When harvesters entered the forest, NGO activists lodged a complaint with the European Commission regarding the actions of the Polish government and went to Białowieża to block the logging.
They climbed up the trees intended for cutting down, chained themselves to harvesters, blocked trucks removing the wood. The eco-activists were forcibly removed from their places, and the police was filing requests to the court to impose penalties. “When I was standing in front of the harvester’s wheels, looking into the eyes of the operator and wondering whether he will move the machine or not, I thought that this is not how my holidays should look like”, remembers Katarzyna Jagiełło from Greenpeace Poland. “Respect for those people who decided to chain themselves and fight”, says Basia Żukowska.
The dispute about logging in the Białowieża forest was closed by a ruling of the European Court of Justice from April 2018. The Court found that Poland has failed to fulfill its obligations under the Birds and Habitats Directive. According to its regulations Poland is obliged to protect wild flora and fauna areas. Thus, the Court ruled that the decision from 2016 by Minister Szyszko to increase the felling in the Białowieża forest breached the European law. However, no fines were imposed, because the State Forests removed heavy machines from the forest. If the logging was recommenced, Poland would not avoid financial penalties. The ruling has also changed the legal classification of the activists’ actions – from those who breach the Polish law they became people who defend the European law, with which Poland, as the EU member, should comply. The Polish courts, even if they had sentenced eco-activists for blocking the logging and breaking the access prohibition, finally did not apply the sentence.