Activists protest logging in the Białowieża Forest in early 2017. They appear poised to win a major victory in a European court. 

Jan A. Nicolas/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

European court backs opponents of logging in primeval Polish forest

One of the hottest environmental conflicts in the European Union—the logging of a primeval forest in Poland—may be nearing an end. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) today issued a legal opinion that the controversial logging, which had been defended by Poland’s government, is illegal. Poland’s minister for the environment indicated that he will accept the court’s final ruling, which is expected next month.

The Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland is the largest remnant of forest that once covered lowland Europe and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to wolves, bison, and a rich array of birds and beetles, the forest contains many species of fungi found nowhere else. In 2016, Jan Szyszko, then the minister for the environment, approved a tripling of logging, saying that it was necessary to fight an outbreak of spruce bark beetles.

Environmental groups argued that the logging wouldn’t defeat the beetle and would cause more harm than good. Most scientists agreed and felt that the old-growth forest should be left largely unmanaged. ClientEarth, an environmental group headquartered in London, and other groups filed a complaint with the European Commission, which took the case to the ECJ, charging that Poland was in violation of EU laws to protect habitat and birds. 

The advocate general of the ECJ, Yves Bot, issued a legal opinion today finding that Poland had not followed the EU laws, nor had it adequately assessed the impact of the logging. He also concluded that logging would harm breeding sites of protected species. The opinion is not binding, but the court follows the recommendation of the advocate general in almost all cases.

Szyszko was fired in early January as part of a Cabinet reshuffle intended to improve relations with the European Union. His replacement, Henryk Kowalczyk, issued a statement today that the ministry was reviewing the opinion, but would abide by the court’s decision: “I can confirm that Poland will comply with the final judgment of the Tribunal regarding the Białowieża Forest.”