EU and Poland clash over plans to log primeval forest
One of the last patches of Europe’s primeval forests is in danger after Poland approved plans for extensive logging.
Its reason is a bark beetle outbreak. But scientists and NGOs say that is a pretext for economic exploitation. And EU authorities on Thursday (16 June) launched a new inquiry.
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Visitors to the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles the Polish-Belarusian border, are impressed by its pristine silence. The air is fresh, cool and moist. Fallen trees lie dying, but at the same time serve as new habitats for diverse species of moss niche and fungi - the natural cycle of life and death.
The area is the last remains of the primeval deciduous forests that once spanned the northern temperate zone in Europe and home to a herd of 800 bison, Europe’s largest mammal.
It is an area of such unique value that it is protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 programme and designated as a world heritage site by Unesco, a branch of the UN.
Tim Badman, the director of the world heritage programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a Swiss-based body that brings together NGOs and government agencies, told EUobserver: “Bialowieza is exceptional for its ecological processes. It is an irreplaceable area for biodiversity conservation, due in particular to the scale of its old growth forests and due its largely undisturbed nature”.
The Belarusian section (some 870 square km) is almost entirely protected as a national park. But less than half of the Polish part (630 square km) has a similar status.
The rest is managed by the State Forests Service (SFS), the biggest state-owned forestry company in Europe, which contributes almost 800mn zloty (€143mn) a year to the national budget from timber production.
This is why the forest silence is regularly broken not by birdsong but by the sound of chainsaws. The scale of the latest logging plan, scientists warn, could pose a threat to the gentle ecosystem.
Breaching EU laws
In March 2016, the Polish environment ministry approved an annex to a 10-year forest management plan (FMP) for the Bialowieza district. The annex raises the logging limit threefold: from 63,000 cubic metres of timber to 188,000 cubic metres. The State Forests Service had initially requested more than 360,000 cubic metres.
According to the ministry, what it calls “sanitary logging” is necessary to stop bark beetles from spreading and destroying the forest.
The logging limits are vital to keeping a balance between commercial and conservationist needs.
The 2012-2021 management plan was the result of a difficult compromise between Polish authorities and the European Commission in 2011. The commission got involved after howls of complaint by green groups, who said Poland was breaching the EU’s habitats directive, a 24 year-old law on species protection.
Four years later, and history is repeating itself.
The Polish forestry firm already reached its 2012-2021 logging limits at the end of 2015. According to Robert Cyglicki, from Greenpeace, “if the annex had not been signed, they would have had to halt all work in the forest for the next six years”.
Timber production is one of the main livelihoods for people in the area. But the logging limits can only be raised if there is risk of harm to the forest or in the case of a natural disaster.
“In our opinion the beetle outbreak is just a pretext to increase economic exploitation of the forest,” Cyglicki said.
This is why several major environmental organisations including ClientEarth Poland, the WWF and Wild Poland joined Greenpeace in an appeal to the EU Commission to intervene in order to avoid “irreversible destruction of natural habitats” in violation of EU habitats laws.
The new logging began last month.
But on Thursday (16 June), the EU executive reacted by initiating infringement proceedings. “The commission is in contact with the Polish authorities to make sure that any measures are in line with EU law,” its spokesman said.
“Polish authorities have one month to provide the information requested and once received, the commission will carefully assess this to decide whether further action is necessary”, he added.
The new Polish government was already at loggerheads with the EU over its judicial reforms and media laws. It now shows little sign of backing down on the Bialowieza dispute.
Andrzej Konieczny, the Polish environment ministry’s special representative on the Puszcza Bialowieska, told EUobserver that the logging is both legal and justified by the biological threat posed by the beetle infestation.
Cure worse then disease?
So, is it really about the beetle?
A small army of environmental scientists from prestigious institutes, such as the Polish Academy of Science, don’t believe the beetle argument. They say that bark beetle outbreaks occur in Bialowieza every eight to 10 years and should be viewed as one of the natural factors that shape the forest.
They also say the so called sanitary logging is ineffective.
Tomasz Wesolowski, a biologist from Wroclaw University in Poland who published an authoritative paper on the “truths and myths” of Puszcza Bialowieska, told this website: “If you want to stop the beetle outbreak you would need to cut down 80 percent of infected spruces. The cure would be worse then the disease because only around 20 percent of infected trees don’t usually survive a beetle attack”.
The Polish state forestry firm, the SFS’s logging plans do not even mention which trees and which areas are to be cleaned, the scientists note.
Polish authorities have also dismissed the argument that bark beetles are a natural factor by saying that the areas managed by SFS are no longer natural forests and require human intervention to keep them safe.
That human intervention is partly responsible for the beetle problem, Greenpeace’s Cyglicki said.
He said the SFS planted too many new spruce trees, on which the beetles thrive, in the zones under its control. They did it because of the high value of spruce trees, which grow relatively quickly and can be harvested for timber earlier than other species.
“There is a significant overrepresentation of spruces in the managed parts of the forest compared to its natural parts”, he said. “Further interventions may only worsen the situation”.
Looking to solve the problem, the Polish government recently invited IUCN experts to visit the site on behalf of Unesco and to offer its independent opinion.
The situation mirrors the Polish judicial dispute with the EU, in which Warsaw also invited independent experts, the Venice Commission, a panel of jurists attached to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, to offer advice.
In both cases, the outside opinion clashed with Poland’s intentions.
The initial IUCN opinion said: “Plans by the Polish government to undertake logging in Bialowieza Forest could disturb the natural ecological processes that are part of the World Heritage values of the site and, if implemented, could provide the basis for listing the site as ‘in danger' in 2017”.
The IUCN’s Tim Badman told EUobserver: “The World Heritage Convention was established to give the highest level of protection to sites with outstanding universal value, which in the case of Bialowieza includes undisturbed natural processes and the richness of dead wood.”
He added: “The mission that we have just undertaken will make recommendations in relation to the management interventions [logging]”.
Greenpeace’s Cygliski said: “For now, the logging is only being conducted around tourist rails. But if loggers proceed with their plans, the losses will be irreversible.”
“In terms of natural forests, Bialowieza is the best that Europe has”, he added.
Konieczny, the Polish ministry’s representative, indicated that the loggers will continue, however. He told this website that the tree-cutting strictly complies with the natural protection measures enshrined in the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.
Poland is the fifth biggest roundwood producer in EU.
In 2014, it produced 40.5 million cubic metres of timber. Yearly production has grown constantly over the past 16 years. The biggest producers in the EU are France, Germany, Finland and Sweden.