In Natura 2000 we trust – the fight to save an ancient Polish forest

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Poland's Bialowieza Forest is home to the Pygmy Owl and many other species

Poland’s Bialowieza Forest is home to the Pygmy Owl and many other species

Natura 2000 day celebrates protected areas all over Europe – and now is a great moment to stop and think about how important this protection is. Poland’s Bialowieza Forest is a protected area under threat. We are fighting to make sure its protected status under EU law stops a dangerous increase in logging authorised by the Polish government.

Just how big is Bialowieza?

Bialowieza Forest straddles Belarus and Poland. The Polish side has been designated a Natura 2000 site and 17% of this is a national park, containing untouched forest with trees 500 years old and 150 feet tall. In Bialowieza National Park has the tallest pedunculate oak in Europe, standing at 44 metres high. The highest spruce trees grow to 55 metres, the tallest in Poland. It is fortunate that the National Park is legally protected from logging – at least for now.

The rest of the forest, which is not a national park (so that’s 83%), despite also containing ancient trees and unique ecosystems, relies on the laws looking after European wildlife to protect it.

How does the EU enforce laws protecting Natura 2000 sites?

The Polish government has recently authorised a threefold increase in logging in Bialowieza, which breaches EU law – but the logging hasn’t started yet. So we’ve used the Birds and Habitats Directives to lodge a complaint with the European Commission against it. Logging would mean the extraction of both living trees and dead wood from the forest. These trees are essential to the preservation of a forest that to many Poles is more than a collection of its parts. Bialowieza holds an almost mystical place in the Polish identity, and logging has inspired heated debate.

How can the Polish government justify logging?

The Polish government says increased logging of the forest is needed to control the outbreak of the bark beetle. But, the forest has survived such outbreaks before and more logging is the wrong solution to a problem that the forest is perfectly capable of solving by itself. Scientists, including some from from Harvard and Oxford universities, have written an open letter to the Polish government outlining their concerns on legal and ecological levels. They explain clearing dead wood from the forest will actually reduce its ability to recover from the outbreak naturally.

The spruce trees in the forest may suffer due to the bark beetle, but dead wood should not be viewed as a wasted profit. It is an essential part of the forest ecosystem – and essential to many species living within the forest.

What does logging at this scale do to ecosystems?

Two rare woodpeckers live in Bialowieza Forest: the three-toed woodpecker and the white-backed woodpecker. Both are reliant on dead or dying spruce trees and after the last outbreak of bark beetle, both species flourished. Reports show that both species saw a population increase of around 50%.

Studies on the three-toed woodpecker carried out in Bialowieza National Park show the population suffers in managed parts of the forest. The three-toed woodpecker was counted twice as often in the primeval, untouched part of the forest. In areas where the dead wood was cleared, they were forced to adapt their nesting habits. By increasing logging, the Polish government is only authorising further disruption to the naturally functioning habitats of many creatures like the woodpeckers. Included in these are other famed residents of the forest, including Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, also under threat from the loss of dead and dying trees.

We have asked the European Commission to use the law to defend this protected area and ensure Europe’s last primeval forest is not sacrificed trying to fix a problem that the forest has historically solved itself.

Habitats self-regulate – no interference needed

As the scientists’ letter shows, leaving the forest to its natural processes will give it the best chance of adapting and becoming more resilient. It is these natural processes that meant UNESCO granted World Heritage Site status to Bialowieza Forest – a status that logging puts under threat. The forest gained this status as UNESCO describes it is an “outstanding example representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of plant and animal ecosystems and communities”.

Logging is a massive and brutal interference, which would have hugely negative consequences for this complex system.

By starting infringement proceedings, the Commission can show that they are ready to take responsive action to prevent and sanction breaches of the laws protecting Natura 2000 areas.

Image credit: Frank Vassen

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