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Bialowieza – logging in the name of forest protection

Along the border between Poland and Belarus lies Europe’s last primeval forest, Bialowieza. Sadly, however, a rising presence of bark beetles has become an alarming threat to the ancient forest according to polish officials. Their response? A massive increase in logging by 2021. This decision has caused an outcry among scientist and environmentalists who claim the intervention to have dishonest motives and being unnecessary. They also fear that it may be very harmful to the unique eco system.

Besides trees that have stood for centuries, the forest also hosts many rare species including fifty-four different mammals such as the European bison, grey wolf and lynx. One of Bialowieza’s most unique traits is that about half of the forest wood is dead which create favorable conditions for thousands of species that depend on decaying wood. Dead wood is usually removed in better managed forests to decrease the risk of fire. In Bialowieza however, dead wood has been targeted by polish officials of the new logging policy for other reasons. Partly because of the wasted commercial potential of letting it rot away instead of logging, but also because they claim that it is a breeding ground for spruce bark beetles.

Looking back through history, the forest has experienced countless of threats, many of which were caused by human action. World War I was an especially tough period as soldiers and poachers hunted down and killed the entire population of bisons, as well as caused serious damage to other species. Luckily in 1929, bisons bred in captivity were successfully reintroduced. UNESCO has concluded the area to be indispensable for biodiversity conservation and marked it as a world heritage site. Today, around 17% of the forest is a national park.

The European bison is the largest land animal in Europe, with males weighing up to 1000kg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The European bison is the largest land animal in Europe, with males weighing up to 1000kg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Polish environment minister and forestry professor, Jan Szyszko, recently declared that the logging would increase the harvest from 63,000 cubic metres to 188,000 cubic metres between 2012 and 2021. Szyszko further stated that this was a measure to protect and allow regrowth of important habitats. The reasoning behind increased harvesting and removal of dead trees is that Bialowiezas characteristically untouched nature, with the tallest trees of Europe, are in danger of dying. Climate changes have created better conditions for the spruce bark beetle to prosper and raised the amount of infested trees.

The Polish government’s new logging policy has been heavily criticized. If they follow-through they may breach European Union environmental regulations as the forest is protected by law as part of EU’s habitat directive. To lawfully increase logging there has to be an investigation that thoroughly analyzes how the wildlife and ecosystem would respond to the increase in logging. The Polish government has not released reports of any such assessments. Local organisations and scientists have actively opposed the new policy and questioned its scientific justifications. Scientists have argued that the consumption of trees by bark beetles is a part of the long-term natural process of the forest’s development. They claim that the forest will survive by a slow and natural replacement of infested trees with ones’ that are more resistant to the beetles. A point have also been made that to have the desired result, an actual attempt to contain the outbreak of beetles, it would in fact cause far more harm than good because it would require significantly more trees to be cut down than the government currently estimates. Since most of the forest has remained untouched there are also concerns that logging may cause irreversible and unforeseeable damage to the eco system.

Environment minister Jan Szyszko. Source: Flickr.
Environment minister Jan Szyszko. Source: Flickr.

With such shaky scientific reasoning, cynics have been questioning whether saving the forest actually is truly the government’s motive. Large old trees have great commercial value and some claim that the new policy is nothing but a way to gain more profit from logging. They have also shed light on the fact that almost half of the trees affected and cut down would not be the beetle infested spruce trees. Their criticism was acknowledged after environment minister, Jan Szyszko, made several comments about wasted commercial potential of unlogged woods. Robert Cyglicki, director of Greenpeace Poland, commented on Szyszkos declaration: “What really worries us is that, in his statement, he explained to the public that there is about 135 million euros [worth of deadwood] left rotting, which shows that he doesn’t see Bialowieza forest as a natural forest, as a place that deserves protection.”

Using aggressive logging to “help” a forest is a controversial method, and many groups are not satisfied with the scientific justifications by the Polish government to utilize it in Bialowieza. If the government chooses to proceed with their plans, it could lead to great tensions with both the European Union in Brussels and the public in Poland. The final word in the contentious debate concerning the fate of one of Europe’s oldest forests has not yet been spoken.

Anton Johansson

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