Understanding Białowieża Forest’s crazy management system is essential knowledge for any visitor to to the forest. Not only will understanding the various zones help you find your way around, but it’ll help put the recent logging conflicts into context. (Basically, logging still occurs due to the lack of a national park over the whole forest area). It’s likely that one day in the future the whole forest will become protected within an enlarged national park. But till then, we have to make do with the current haphazard system of management.
A brief historical overview
Nowadays, some parts of the forest are strictly protected, and some are exploited for wood. Though, it wasn’t always like this: for most of Poland’s history, the forest was strictly protected by royalty. Protection came to an end during WW1, when the German occupying force began logging on an industrial scale. Logging of the precious forest continues to this day, and only a small fragment in the national park has survived in a pristine state. Despite this damage, much of the rest of the forest remains in a near-natural state and is teeming with biodiversity. And thankfully, since the fall of communism, increasing portions of the forest have become protected.
The current situation
The forest is now divided between nature conservation areas (1/3rd of the area) and commercial forest (2/3rd). The hundred-year-old strictly protected reserve of Białowieża National Park forms the pristine core of the forest; this area has never been logged and trees have never been planted here. Nevertheless, various other parts of the forest are equally beautiful and litte-touched by loggers. Over the past 30 years, increasing environmental consciousness has given many of these areas protection. A nature reserve network has been established, and the national park was doubled in size. But despite this progress, the situation remains far from ideal. Many old-growth stands are still without effective legal protection. A breakdown of the protection of the Polish side of the forest looks like this:
- The national park covers 17% of the forest’s area. Half of the national park is protected as a strict reserve (closed to tourists without a guide) and the other half, the northern zone, is open to tourists.
- Nature reserves strictly protect another 19%. These are open to the public, but you shouldn’t leave the trails (i.e. don’t go off-piste).
- Managed Forest makes up the rest of the forest. The state forestry company manages this, although various parts of the managed forest have also been taken out of use (i.e. are not logged). The managed forest is open to everyone.
Additional to these forms of protection, the forest is encompassed by two additional forms of protection originating from international treaty obligations. Firstly, the entire forest area is a Natura 2000 site, under the European Union’s Habitats and Birds Directives. This requires Poland to maintain all the forest’s habitats and species at favourabe conservation status. Second, the whole forest is also protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. The forest’s UNESCO management plan divides the forest up into four management zones, which you can find here.
Successive Polish governments have repeatedly failed to adequately protect this special forest. Over the last years, new protection regimes have been added (the enlarged national park, nature reserves, Natura 2000 site and UNESCO site), and these have no doubt provided invaluable additional protection to the forest’s biodiversity. However, the forest is still under threat. History seems to repeat itself every few years: foresters make a new logging plan, and despite environmentalist’s protests, the forest gets further degraded. There is only one solution to this perpetual problem,and that is to enlarge the national park to encompass the whole forest area. We can only hope that this will happen before it’s too late.