Protesters march against logging last August in the Białowieża Forest.

Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

Logging in Europe’s primeval forest ruled illegal

Europe’s top court has ruled that controversial logging in Poland’s iconic Białowieża Forest is illegal, but the fight over the forest’s future is far from finished. “The controversy over what to do next is just beginning,” says ornithologist Przemek Chylarecki of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

Białowieża is the best-preserved remnant of old-growth forest that once spanned lowland Europe. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the 1500-square-kilometer forest has centuries-old trees, as well a menagerie—including wolves, lynx, dozens of species of birds, beetles and fungi—found nowhere else. Foresters and preservationists have fought over Białowieża for decades. Ecologists would like to see the forest left to its own devices—as is the case with a small national park at its core—while foresters argue that logging and replanting are necessary to protect against pests and to maintain certain habitats.

The latest battle began after spruce bark beetles began to kill drought-weakened trees in 2012. Foresters started felling trees in a bid to stop the beetle, but biologists said the attempt was doomed to fail and would cause more damage than the beetles. In March 2016, Jan Szyszko, the minister of the environment at the time, tripled the amount of logging permitted in one of three districts managed by the Forest Service, ostensibly to speed up the campaign against the beetle. Environmental groups suspected that the motives were economic, and they pressed the European Commission to take Poland to court. Last summer, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered a temporary halt to the logging, although it allowed an exemption for cutting trees that pose a risk to public safety.

In a ruling issued yesterday, the court agreed that the ministry had not properly assessed the potential impact of the increased logging on the protected habitat, and foresters had erred by cutting trees more than 100 years old and removing dead wood that provides habitat for endangered beetles and nesting spots for owls. Logging also should not have occurred during the nesting season. The court was not convinced that the bark beetles justified the logging.

Szyszko lost his job in January when the government shook up the cabinet; his replacement, Henryk Kowalczyk, said yesterday that the ministry will adhere to the court’s ruling. He told Polish radio that he is convening an expert committee to create a long-term plan and find a compromise between forestry management and hands-off protection. Agata Szafraniuk, an attorney with ClientEarth in Warsaw, says the time for compromise is past. "Now is the moment for the long-term solution, which we think is [an expanded] national park." Szafraniuk says the ruling will have an impact beyond Białowieża by setting a higher standard for forestry assessments. "This is a tremendous change in the whole of forest management in Poland," she says.

Meanwhile, Chylarecki fears that logging will continue in Białowieża. Although the Forest Service has exhausted the logging quota it set in 2016, he expects that it will request further allocations from the ministry before the next management plan begins in 2022. "I don't believe the foresters will be willing to wait 4 years without any earnings from timber."

Andrzej Bobiec, an ecologist at the University of Rzeszów in Poland, has mixed feeling about the ruling. Although glad the logging has stopped, he notes that the decision says nothing about replanting. Replanting open ground is bad, he says, because the land will eventually resemble an industrial timber plantation, providing less diverse habitat for other creatures.

Bobiec also worries that the EU laws are based on keeping habitats intact. This means a future court might be persuaded that foresters are following habitat protection laws when they maintain a mix of species, by cutting some and planting others, in a particular place. It also means that the laws neglect what is ecologically special about Białowieża, which is that its habitats changedriven by outbreaks of bark beetles, for example, or windstormson a large scale, compared with other forests in the European Union.

Instead of protecting "favorable conservation status," Bobiec proposes, it would make more sense to conserve "favorable dynamics." Given the current laws, Białowieża's wildness would have greater security if it were encompassed by a national park, he says.