Białowieża Forest in northeastern Poland is the last of the vast primeval forest that once stretched across the European lowlands. Strictly protected for centuries by royalty as a private hunting ground, it is now a living museum of ancient natural processes replete with species extinct elsewhere. But the serenity of this fairy-tale forest has recently been disrupted by a bitter environmental conflict triggered by a huge spruce bark beetle infestation.

The State Forests Service, backed by the environment minister, argues that the only way to save the forest from oblivion is to cut out the million infected trees – a plan that is now around a third complete. Scientists and environmentalists, on the other hand, have roundly condemned the plan, arguing that it has no chance of halting the bark beetle, and will in itself cause untold damage to critical protected habitats. The issue has also become another front in the multiple conflicts between Poland’s national-conservative government and the EU, with the European Commission suing Poland over the logging at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and the Polish government refusing to comply with an ECJ order to immediately halt logging.

Who should we believe in this complex and politicised debate?

As a scientist living and working in Białowieża, I’ve found the misinformation propagated in the media staggering, and this article is an attempt to set the record straight. It will run through some of the little-known events that have led up to this crisis, outline the scientific and legal consensus for why the logging cannot be permitted, and then discuss how this question can be settled to ensure the flourishing of both the local community and biodiversity.

The roots of the dispute

At its root, the conflict stems from successive governments failing to effectively formalise the management of the forest. Most of it remains in control of the State Forests, who began intensive logging here a century ago. Despite this, half of Białowieża Forest’s primeval tree stands have survived to this day. This is remarkable considering that for most of this period of intense logging only a small fragment of forest has been protected – the strict reserve of the Białowieża National Park, comprising 8% of the Polish part of the forest. The rest of the forest has been fair game for exploitation. Thankfully since Poland’s transition to democracy, increasing portions of the forest have been taken out of use: a nature reserve network was established, and the national park was doubled in size. But despite this progress, the situation remains far from ideal. Many primeval stands are still without effective legal protection, and even outside of these stands, the forest is teeming with biodiversity.

The most natural forest is within the Białowieża National Park and nature reserves. Outside of these, the forest is of varying degrees of naturalness − 20% is old growth, 30% natural secondary growth (not planted), 50% planted − and divided between three forest districts of the State Forests. Logging is currently banned in the national park, nature reserves and reference areas.

After Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, a Natura 2000 protected area was established over the whole forest area. Later, the UNESCO world heritage site was extended to cover the entire Polish and Belarussian parts of the forest. These additional forms of protection have proved invaluable in recent years for managing and protecting the biodiversity outside the national park and nature reserves, which would otherwise be targets for unsustainable exploitation.

The negative effect of forestry on biodiversity in Białowieża Forest has long been a concern. But the introduction of European environmental laws in 2004 made it likely that forestry was at illegally high levels. This triggered the European Commission to take an interest as early as 2007, specifically complaining that the forest management plan did not guarantee sufficient protection of the ecological values of the forest. A protracted, several-year discussion ensued to achieve a compromise that secured the biodiversity and provided locals with a wood supply. This criteria formed the basis of a new forest-management plan stipulating a threefold decrease in logging over previous levels and a ban on timber harvesting in the oldest and most vulnerable stands. The new 10-year plan finally came into force in 2011. But the compromise did not last.

The State Forests proceeded to consume almost the entirety of the logging quota within just four years − 98% consumed in Białowieża forest district, and 75% in the other two districts overlapping Białowieża Forest (ostensibly to fight the bark beetle infestation). Predictably, rather than give up forestry for the next six years, foresters soon insisted the logging quota was too small and must be extended. Enter Jan Szyszko, who, following the return to power of Law and Justice (PiS), was made environment minister in 2015 (a position he also held during PiS’s previous stint in power from 2005-7). With extensive ties to the forestry lobby and a renowned hatred for environmentalists, he was sympathetic to the foresters’ complaints. He promptly extended the logging quota to three times the compromise levels. Moreover, logging was now to be permitted again in tree stands over 100 years old, irrespective of what protected species they may contain.

In brief, the logging plans are now as follows:

  • The national park, nature reserves and ‘reference areas’ are excluded from logging.
  • The recent threefold increase in logging so far only concerns Białowieża Forest District.
  • The other two forest districts are still within their original quotas, but with logging proceeding intensively and their quotas nearing their limits, extensions are soon likely.

The exclusion of almost half of the forest from the latest logging proposals is positive, but a direct consequence is that logging will be intensely concentrated in the remaining areas.

The bark beetle

Bark beetles are innocuous-looking insects that can have potentially devastating consequences for spruce trees. They drill into the bark and lay eggs, after which the larvae hatch and eat plant tissue. If a tree fails to defend itself by inundating the larvae with sap then it dies. During periods of drought, as have occurred recently in Białowieża Forest, epidemics of this menace can be truly monstrous. But this is not an unexpected event, as the spruce bark beetle is a native species, and has been around here for millennia. In fact, outbreaks occur cyclically every 7-10 years or so and larger ones roughly every 100. So, despite the infestation having killed 8% of the trees in Białowieża Forest, it is a perfectly natural and expected occurrence.

A combination of man-made factors have also exacerbated the bark beetle outbreak: 1) foresters have planted hundreds of thousands of identical spruce trees in place of logged deciduous forest, resulting in far higher than natural spruce abundances; 2) large-scale drainage during the 20th century lowered the water table in the forest, negatively affecting the condition of spruce trees; and 3) climate change is making Białowieża Forest, already at the southwestern edge of the spruce’s natural range, an increasingly warm, dry and consequently unfavorable place for spruce trees to grow. These factors recently reached a tipping point, as successive dry years made spruce vulnerable to bark beetle attack. Thus, the forest is now responding to contemporary environmental conditions through the mass dying of spruce, and transitioning into a more natural and well-adapted mixture of trees.

Despite the well-established scientific explanation for a bark beetle invasion of this scale, foresters have created the image of an unfolding tragedy. They have blamed the ‘ongoing death of the forest’ on environmentalists for having undermined their role as guardians of the forest. The framing of the argument in this way has led to the successful elimination of the previous compromise, enabling them to respond in a way typical for commercial forests: with the mass-clearing of infected and dead trees, to be removed and sold on the open market. According to the foresters, this will halt the infestation (myth #1), save spruce stands and the biodiversity inhabiting them (myth #2), and secure the future economic resources of the forest (myth #3).

Needless to say, Białowieża is no typical commercial forest, and the response of the national and international scientific communities has been scathing. The consensus is that the plan is doomed to failure, and that the medicine is tremendously more damaging than the disease itself.

Why sanitary cuttings are a bad idea

If Białowieża Forest is to be a museum of natural processes and a continuation of the same forest that has existed here for 10,000 years, then human intervention must be kept to a minimum. Admittedly, not everyone buys this argument − many in Poland regard nature as unable to fend for itself without human intervention and others care little for the concept of a primeval forest. But ideology aside, a solid scientific consensus has emerged for why sanitary logging in Białowieża Forest is a tremendously bad idea.

Myth #1: Sanitary cuttings will halt the infestation

The reality is that sanitary cuttings are unlikely to work at all. Research indicates that 80% of infected trees would need to be removed for them to be effective. This is an impossibility in Białowieża Forest, as half of the Polish side is excluded from logging, and an even greater area of forest is over the border in Belarus. One of the world’s leading experts on spruce bark beetle recently confirmed this in an interview, stating that ‘in a forest with a mosaic of protection measures, sanitary cuttings are unlikely to be effective’. This lack of potential for success alone should be sufficient justification for not proceeding with unprofitable sanitary cuttings.

Myth #2: Sanitary cuttings will save vital habitats and biodiversity

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the State Forests maintain that sanitary cuttings will halt the degradation of Białowieża Forest’s oak-hornbeam forest habitats. But in its recently leaked 24 page reply to the ECJ, the environment ministry offered little elaboration on which specific species they are attempting to rescue. I have read the response several times, and all I found was a concern that old spruce trees would die out. Considering there are countless spruces over a century old in the forest that have survived many previous bark beetle outbreaks, this point seems easily dismissible: the bark beetle never kills all the spruce trees. But in any case, with Białowieża Forest gradually becoming an increasingly unfavourable habitat for spruce trees, it makes little sense to keep their abundances artificially high through expensive management practices.

However, not only is the logging going to be ineffective at saving any habitats, it’s going to directly damage other ones. The severity of this damage cannot be understated. Normally, after the bark beetle passes through, forest stands quickly regenerate naturally, and the dead wood left over, provides habitat for a myriad of species. But for the first time in Białowieża Forest’s history, heavy-duty machinery has appeared. This greatly accelerates the pace of logging, and has dire consequences for the forest floor – harvesters tear up the ground, damage the soil profile, and crush the naturally regenerating trees.

Even more worrying is the effect of the removal of these trees on species that depend on dead wood for their life cycles. Several endangered species protected within Polish and European law depend on the presence of dead wood, including several enigmatic beetles, two woodpeckers and one owl. The status of these species should currently be improving, and indeed numbers of the three-toed and white backed woodpeckers have increased by 50% over the past 3 years. But if most of the recent addition of dead wood to the forest is removed as is planned, then these species will again be severely limited.

The fact that sanitary cuttings reduce biodiversity has become clear in various recent studies, while others have shown how bark beetle infestations are a boon to biodiversity: post-invasion stands may look dead, but they’re actually teeming with life. Thus the narrative of the State Forests that logging is essential to ‘save’ the forest simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Moreover, it has become apparent that we should perhaps even be thankful that the bark beetle is restoring a more natural mix of trees in the forest and providing habitat for a variety of endangered species.

Legal issues

The negative impact that the logging will have on biodiversity is precisely why the European Commission is suing Poland in the ECJ. The Habitats and Birds Directives oblige EU member states to maintain protected habitats and species within their Natura 2000 protected areas at ‘favourable conservation status’. Thus this is where the logging hits its final legal obstacle: it is illegal because it is negatively affecting protected species and habitats. Normally Poland would be expected to enforce these laws itself; however, as with all EU law, if domestic institutions fail, the European Commission steps in. Failing this, disputes end up in the ECJ for final arbitration. Having exhausted domestic avenues to block the logging, environmental groups resorted to petitioning Brussels to arbitrate on its legality.

According to the legal complaint lodged with the European Commission, within the Natura 2000 management plan, all habitats in the national park (where no forestry is permitted) are in favourable conservation status, whereas those outside of the park are mostly in unfavourable status. This leads us to a clear (but somewhat unsurprising) conclusion: the conservation status of Białowieża Forest’s habitats and species is most favourable in areas excluded from forestry. In itself this should be enough to indicate the negative role of forestry in conservation. But the Natura 2000 management plan goes even further in its indictment, by giving specific reasons for the unfavourable statuses of habitats: 1) incorrect dominant species (i.e. the overabundance of spruce), 2) lack of dead wood, and 3) improper age profile of stands (planted stands have hectares of trees of the same age). All of these factors are driven by forestry practices. A certain irony now appears: by killing some of the spruce, and littering the forest with dead wood, the bark beetle will actually improve the conservation status of the forest. The bark beetle is helping us to meet our legal obligations.

A final aspect of the ongoing legal case worth mentioning is that the State Forests committed a grave procedural error while drawing up the extension to the forest management plan. Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive requires any project or plan that has the potential to negatively impact the ‘integrity’ of a Natura 2000 site to have its effect on protected habitats and species evaluated. An assessment was in fact carried out, but it only investigated the impact of the failure to conduct the logging rather than the impact of the logging itself on habitats and species. So, despite countless warnings, the State Forests didn’t even bother to look into how their plans would directly damage the biodiversity they were ostensibly trying to protect, despite this being an explicit legal necessity.

The European Commission has argued that the logging is illegal and petitioned the ECJ to arbitrate on the matter. Within two weeks of being petitioned the ECJ issued an injunction banning logging across the entirety of Białowieża Forest, except in circumstances where public safety is in danger. The response of the Polish government was unprecedented: for the first time in history, a decision of Europe’s top court was ignored and the logging continued with renewed vigour. The State Forests used the short line of text permitting logging in the interests of public safety as a pretext to render the entire injunction null and void. Overnight the public declarations of the environment ministry were transformed: where previously the logging had been to tackle the bark beetle infestation, it had now become a battle for public safety.

Suffice to say it is unlikely that the ECJ will take a positive view of this, and the next moves in court are planned for the 11th September. Here the Polish delegation will have the opportunity to explain why it believes the injunction should be lifted. In response, the ECJ will either lift, retain, or make the injunction even stricter. With the final ECJ judgement many months, or even years away, the short-term future of the forest depends on the enforcement of the logging ban. Should Poland continue to ignore the court ruling, a fine of up to €4 million can be issued, with each additional day of non-compliance costing up to €300,000. Whether such fines materialise quickly enough to make a difference remains to be seen.

Real causes of the conflict

With the seemingly clear illegality and ethical considerations of the logging in mind you may be wondering why this conflict even exists. Despite activists’ frequent protestation that it is all about money, this is not the whole story. As at its core, this is an ideological conflict. Over the past 10-15 years a coalition has emerged in Polish society in response to increasing ecological consciousness and EU environmental laws. Citing the biblical imperative to ‘subdue the Earth’ as providing ‘not only the right, but the duty to use natural resources’, this group believes nature cannot survive without man and his meticulous management. The director of the State Forests declared ‘eco-centrism’ to be one of the greatest threats to the functioning of Polish forests. In this context, foresters feel it necessary to intervene to save Białowieża Forest, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This worldview ends up as a pretext for the unsustainable exploitation of the nation’s natural resources and a rallying cry for the preservation of vested interests.

These interests recently became united under the banner of the Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, who has begun a culture war under the guise of fighting the ‘animalisation of people and humanisation of animals, trees and plants’. His aim is to promote the ‘world-leading Polish model of sustainable environmental exploitation’ and to eliminate the influence of eco-terrorists from society. This war has been ramping up throughout his term in office, beginning with the dismantling of the constitutionally mandated state council for environmental protection. Szyszko fired some of the nation’s leading scientists and replaced them with an assortment of loyal foresters and hunters, whose scientific credentials are dubious to say the least. Then, earlier this year at a conference co-organised by the environment ministry and sponsored by the State Forests, ecologists were labelled as ‘Green Nazis’ and ‘neo-communists’ who aim to ‘destroy everything God created’.

It is not immediately obvious where this all stems from. But there are suspicions that Szyszko’s hatred for environmentalists began back in 2006 during his first term as environment minister, when again, the European Commission had to step in to prevent him approving the building of a motorway through the Rospuda valley in northeastern Poland, home to one of Europe’s last natural rivers. This time around, Szyszko is determined not to be thwarted, with Białowieża Forest unfortunately having gained symbolic status in this war, to not be compromised under any circumstances.

The future

Myth #3 – The economic future of the forest must be secured.

Once the current legal and ideological conflict subsides, there will come a time when the question hanging over Białowieża Forest’s management is finally settled. This future lies in the expansion of Białowieża National Park to encompass the whole forest area. In this way, the economic prosperity of the locals, the security of the unique biodiversity, and the keeping of Poland’s legal obligations can be tackled together. But this is closely dependent on one of the more sensitive aspects of the current conflict − the consent of the local community, who are currently mostly on the side of the foresters. Their stance is understandable in one of the most underdeveloped regions of Poland, where many families have close ties to forestry. But with the 150,000 tourists who visit annually already bringing in far more money to the local economy than the 150 locals employed in forestry, it is easy to see where the opportunities lie.

A well-designed national park with zones that secure wood for the locals, recreation for tourists and protection for biodiversity has the potential to become a world renowned global brand. The forest is spread across a large area and could easily become a multi-entry, multi-activity park: all of the surrounding villages could provide accommodation and services, with the park authorities creating the infrastructure for cycling, kayaking and skiing. This is not a utopian vision for the future, it is a realistic prospect that just requires a coordinated management approach. But the current dispute, and the images of large-scale logging being broadcast around the world, damages the forest’s reputation and puts this brighter potential future in peril.