They Still Exist! Ancient Forests in Europe

450-year-old oak in Białowieża National Park, Poland. Image from wikipedia

The future of the the Bialowieza forest that straddles the frontier between Poland and Belarus pits competing visions of environmental stewardship and economic development, and of Poland’s path under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Last month the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to fine Poland for ignoring an earlier order to halt logging in parts of the forest protected under EU law—in effect, nearly all of the 60,000 hectares of it that lie in Poland. In July 2017 UNESCO, the guardian of the planet’s human and natural wonders, urged the government to end logging or risk Bialowieza’s demotion from a world heritage site to one “in danger”, causing anger in Belarus, whose half of the forest would also be affected…[T] Bialowieza’s towering oaks, hornbeams and spruces, plus the European bison and other endangered species that roam beneath their canopies, offer a unique glimpse of the continent’s ecological past…

Today Poland’s forestry service insists that it, too, is being a responsible steward. The felling being condemned by Brussels was necessary, it argues, to prevent dead trunks from collapsing onto cyclists and walkers (the EU court decision exempts cutting on safety grounds, but argues that the Poles have gone much further)…

Many local residents shrug off such worries in any case. Those with ties to the long-declining lumber industry regard rotting wood as a wasted resource. The larger number engaged in tourism fret that rows of lifeless trunks put visitors off rather than lure them. “How many people will come to see dead trees?” huffs Jerzy Sirak, the mayor of Hajnowka, a town on the western edge of the forest…

Quite a few, reckons Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who as prime minister in 1995-99 doubled the national park’s size to its current 10,500 hectares. Bialowieza’s value, he argues, lies in being a laboratory for natural processes, not a museum cabinet stacked with a preordained mix of species, much less a source of wood. Even with the recent uptick in revenues from logging, the forestry service spends a net 20m zlotys ($5.5m) a year on Bialowieza. Given low lumber prices, closing that deficit would require logging on a scale no one is willing to contemplate. Tourists, meanwhile, spend around 72m zlotys (20 million dollars) annually in the area, according to one study.

NGOs’ long-standing demand to place all of Bialowieza under full protection, as Belarus did with most of its part in 2012, faces opposition from local authorities that suspect eco-absolutism will curb growth. “We used to look to Poland as an example; now they look to us,” observes a Belarusian ecologist wryly.

PiS looks unmoved by environmental arguments. It dismisses protests by concerned scientists, NGOs and ordinary citizens—which range from signing open letters to chaining themselves to tree-harvesters—as political attacks by foreign and domestic opponents of its “Poland first” nationalism

Excerpt from Poland: Saving the Trees, Economist,  Oct. 7 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s