Leading European ecologists Malgorzata Blicharska and Richard Smithers are worried about the imminent demise of Europe's most important near-natural forest.
How can we plead with developing nations to save their forests if developed nations won’t do the same?
The largest tract of old-growth forest in Europe, Białowieża Forest in Poland, is facing heavy clear-cut logging. Ironically, the forest cutting is being pushed by the Polish Ministry of Environment, which purports it is trying to stamp out a bark-beetle outbreak.
Europe’s Biggest Old-Growth Temperate Forest
Białowieża Forest spans the Polish-Belarus border, with roughly half in each country (870 square kilometers in Belarus and 630 square kilometers in Poland). Because of its size and old-growth condition, it is irreplaceable for biodiversity.
Natural processes predominate, including a richness of standing and fallen dead wood, on which an array of fungi and invertebrates are wholly reliant.
The Forest hosts the World’s largest population of European bison, populations of large carnivores such as lynx and wolf, and many rare species that are threatened or have disappeared elsewhere.
For decades it been a living laboratory for scientists studying natural forest processes.
In Belarus, the Forest is almost entirely protected as a national park. But on the Polish side, just 17% is managed as Białowieża National Park, with the State Forest ministry largely responsible for the remainder.
World Heritage Forest
In 1979, the Polish National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was extended into Belarus in 1992, with a buffer zone added in 2014.
Remarkably, in 2003 the Polish government lifted a ban on felling trees over a century in age in the extensive forest surrounding the National Park. Long-term campaigning by conservationists led a new management plan in 2012 that significantly reduced harvesting levels.
However, in 2015 the Polish government tripled forest cutting in response to an outbreak of spruce bark beetle. Such infestations have long been recorded, but some foresters claim the Forest will not survive without human intervention.
Conservationists view the bark-beetle outbreak as a natural process. Affected stands should be left to decay and regenerate naturally, they believe, and only trees that are a threat to human health and safety should be felled.
Conservation Over Logging
In ALERT’s view, the foresters’ pro-harvest perspective undermines the international importance of Białowieża Forest and runs counter to the pro-conservation basis on which it has been protected.
The European Commission agrees: it has warned Poland that logging Białowieża violates the EU Habitats and Birds Directives.
Yet despite such warnings and growing outcries from the global community, Europe’s last extensive area of natural forest still faces the axe.