Europe and Central Asia
3 May 2016

The Polish government wants to cut down this millenia-old forest

The Białowieża forest, including its dead trees, is home to a variety of birds, mammals, insects and mosses. The Photo: Jarek Krogulec
By Wouter Langhout

The Białowieża forest, located on the border between Poland and Belarus, is one of Europe’s last truly old-growth forests and is one of the few remnants of the vast woods that once covered most of Europe. It is a unique place: a Natura 2000 site; an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) and a UNESCO World Heritage site; home to wolves, European Bison and countless bird species.

The towering, awe-inspiring old trees in the forest remind us that nature works on timespans longer than our lifetime. These old trees are little ‘planets’ of their own and are an important part of the forest ecosystem well beyond the lifespan of the trees themselves. In natural forests like Białowieża, ancient trees remain standing for years after they have died, offering a place to live for birds, mammals, mosses and insects. Every part of the trees, from the roots to the canopy, are used.

It is therefore incomprehensible that the Polish government has decided to start large-scale logging in the forest by amending the Forest Management Plan. The government claims that logging of spruce trees is needed to combat the outbreak of the bark beetle, which lives under the bark of these trees. However, outbreaks of bark beetle are a natural phenomenon, occurring every 8-10 years in the forest, and several of these outbreaks in the past where followed by a boom in populations of other species. For example, the dead trees and branches that are a result of these beetle outbreaks form an important habitat for the Pygmy Owl and the White-backed Woodpecker

Fortunately, the Białowieża forest is designated as a Natura 2000 site under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. This means that the Polish government cannot allow activities that would damage the forest. Large-scale logging is a clear breach of the EU nature laws, in particular Article 6 of the EU Habitats Directive, which bans activities that deteriorate a Natura 2000 site. The logging would also likely have implications for the local economy, as the forest attracts more than 100.000 tourists every year; they would likely be horrified at the destruction and obviously less inclined to visit if all they could see were stumps instead of trees.

The Polish government has not responded to calls by conservation NGOs to change its decision. Polish NGOs, including OTOP (BirdLife in Poland), have now filed a formal complaint with the European Commission about the logging plans and have asked it to save the forest. If Poland fails to respect the EU Nature Directives, the European Commission can bring a case before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which can impose hefty fines on the Member State.

There is some cause for optimism that the Commission will come down on the side of nature: It sprang into action to save Poland’s Rospuda Valley in 2007 when it was threatened by road development.

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Thanks to the Nature Directives and the European Union, we have a chance to save the Białowieża forest from what would be a colossal mistake by the Polish government. We are looking to the Commission to intervene and save the forest as a common heritage for all Europeans.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.