WARSAW, Poland – It is the last remaining relic of an ancient forest that stretched for millennia across the lowlands of Europe and Russia, a shadowy, mossy woodland where bison and lynx roam beneath towering oak trees up to 600 years old.
Conservationists believe the fate of the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles Poland and Belarus, is more threatened than at any time since the communist era due to a new Polish government plan for extensive logging in parts of the forest. The plan has pitted the government against environmentalists and many scientists, who are fighting to save the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seven environmental groups, including Greenpeace and WWF, have lodged a complaint with the European Commission hoping to prevent the large-scale felling of trees, which is due to begin within days. Bialowieza has been declared a Natura 2000 site, meaning it is a protected area under European law. EU officials say they are working with the Polish authorities to ensure that any new interventions in the forest are in line with their regulations, but it’s not yet clear what the result will be.
The preservation of Bialowieza is such a sensitive matter that IKEA, which relies on Polish timber for 25 percent of its global furniture production, vowed years ago not to buy any wood from Bialowieza.
“This forest is a Polish treasure but it is also the world’s treasure, and we could lose it,” said Katarzyna Kosciesza from ClientEarth, one of the groups that filed the complaint. “The logging would really threaten it.”
The forest plan is one of many controversial changes that have come with the election last year of a conservative populist party, Law and Justice. The new authorities have been accused by the European Union and human rights groups of eroding democracy and the rule of law.
The party’s powerful leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, says he’s on a mission to remake the country from top to bottom in line with the party’s conservative Catholic and patriotic ideology. Since taking power in November, Poland’s government has moved quickly to push broad changes in everything from cultural institutions to horse breeding farms and forestry management.
The government argues they are fixing the country by removing the corrupt influences of former communists and pro-Europeans who have held power in recent years.
In the case of Bialowieza, government officials are blaming their predecessors for financial losses from the strict limits on logging. The environment minister, Jan Szyszko, also faulted them for getting the UNESCO World Heritage designation, which brings some international oversight.
About 35 percent of the forest on the Polish side includes a national park and reserves, strictly protected zones that the government does not plan to touch. Officials argue the planned logging is not harmful because it will take part only in “managed” parts of the forest that have already been subject to logging in the past. But environmentalists say the logging plan is so extensive it would inevitably lead to the destruction of old-growth areas.
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