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Postolowo Journal: In Poland, a Battle for the Fate of Europe’s Last Ancient Forest

But the protesters, backed by environmentalists, say all invasive operations in the primeval forest endanger its ecosystem. They are supported by the European Union, whose executive branch has warned the government that if it does not stop the logging, it will be sued by the European Court of Justice on accusations of violating the bloc’s rules on environmental protection.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, is on their side, too. Last week, during a meeting in Krakow, the delegates adopted a decision in which they urged Polish government to halt logging in the forest, especially in old-growth tree stands. Unesco is also considering adding the forest to the List of World Heritage in Danger, a move usually reserved for land and properties threatened by armed conflicts and natural disasters.

“It’s a unique biological laboratory, in which we can observe how natural processes worked 10,000 years ago,” said Tomasz Wesolowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wroclaw. “To move anything within it is a barbarity.”

The protest staged in Postolowo was just one in a series of civil disobedience acts organized here recently by environmentalists to block the logging.

“We already tried everything else — negotiating with the ministry, alerting international institutions,” said Katarzyna Jagiello, an official from the Polish branch of Greenpeace. “The time has come for desperate measures.”

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A Bialowieza section that has been logged. Since 2012, foresters have logged almost 180,000 trees infested with a beetle. Credit Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The Bialowieza Forest sits in the middle of the European lowlands at the border between Poland and Belarus. As a relic of ancient forests, it has some of the oldest and largest trees on the Continent, as well as species that are rare or extinct elsewhere. It is also home to the largest colony of bison in Europe.

The biodiversity of the forest is immense and comparable to that of rain forests, said Mr. Wesolowski, who has been visiting Bialowieza to conduct fieldwork every spring for the past 43 years.

Still, government officials say Bialowieza is not a so-called virgin forest, which is usually defined as having spontaneously generated itself with a variety of tree species, sizes and age classes and with minimal interference from humans.

“There is not a single part of this forest that hasn’t been touched by a human hand,” Grzegorz Bielecki, one of the managers of the forest, said in an interview.

That doesn’t matter, environmentalists say. “Hardly any place on earth carries no signs of human activity,” said Jerzy Szwagrzyk of the University of Agriculture in Krakow, an ecology and forestry expert. “But in no way does this change the significance of this forest. There is no other place like this on the Continent.”

Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, an avid hunter and former forester, recently told Parliament that Unesco had “illegally” listed the Bialowieza Forest as a World Heritage site in 2014 and asked prosecutors to investigate the designation.

Mr. Szyszko, who did not respond to an interview request, complained in a panel presented by a right-wing news organization that the Bialowieza Forest had become “some kind of a flagship for the left-wing-libertine movement of Western Europe.”

Officials with State Forests, a governmental organization that manages Polish forests, which are all state owned, say the infestation of a European spruce bark beetle broke out in 2012, after the previous center-right government significantly lowered how much logging could occur. As a result, they say, over 10 percent of all spruces have been attacked.

The government tripled the logging limits in 2016. In February, it repealed the protection of tree stands that are over a century old.

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Demonstrators in Warsaw protested Bialowieza logging in June. Credit Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since 2012, the foresters have logged almost 180,000 infected trees. Of those logged this year, 25 percent were at least 100 years old.

Mr. Szwagrzyk of the University of Agriculture said that since the logging could take place only in certain areas in the forest — excluding the nature reserves and national park — the infestation may continue to spread from the areas that are off limits even if infected trees were removed.

The woodland’s complicated legal status has added to the difficulties in protecting it. Poland and Belarus have been managing their portions separately for decades.

The Polish side has more than 20 nature reserves, a national park and a commercial forest. Borders of some of the reserves are unclear, leading to disputes over how deep into the forest harvesters can go.

The best solution, experts agree, would be to turn the entire forest into a national park, but the regional government has torpedoed all the efforts to do so.

The fate of trees already killed by the beetle is another disputed point. The foresters say dead wood must be clear-cut for safety reasons. But environmentalists say decaying wood is an indispensable ingredient of a primeval woodland. About 40 percent of all organisms living in it, including insects, fungi and birds, are critically dependent on dead or dying spruces.

They say State Forests is cutting the dead trees because it needs the money. The institution is required to be financially self-sufficient, and nearly 90 percent of its revenue — 7 billion Polish zloty (close to $ 2 billion) in 2015 — comes from selling wood.

The forest district office said it did not keep records of dead trees removed, but Mr. Bielecki, one of the district managers, called the accusations “deeply unfair.”

While the fate of the forest is being considered, Mr. Wesolowski, the biologist, warned that some things cannot be undone.

“We can’t restore a primeval forest,” he said. “If we could, we would have done it already somewhere near Berlin or London. Our Bialowieza Forest is the only one, and we, like some idiots, are trying to destroy it.”

Source: NYT > World

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