Ancient Białowieża Forest facing major destruction

Blicharska, Malgorzata, Mikusinski, Grzegorz | April 12, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

When you travel through European plains, you can hardly see any old forest — not to mention any sizable blocks of it. As in any other place on the Earth with long history of human use, basically all land covered with fertile soils has been converted to farmland or developed into urbanised area. There is one major exception: the Białowieża Forest located at the Polish-Belarussian border.

Big dying trees are great substrate for fungi. Image by Oli Wenhrynowicz.
Big dying trees are great substrate for fungi. Image by Oli Wenhrynowicz.

Highly worrying for us, researchers working with biodiversity, is the newly made decision by the Polish Minister of the Environment allowing for massive logging in the ancient Białowieża Forest, a unique place, well-known for anyone working with conservation biology.

The bulk of forest stands in this UNESCO World Heritage site has never been cut due to continuous protection. First, the crowned heads kept it as a game reserve. Later, modern forms of protection such as national park and nature reserves covering parts of the Białowieża Forest have been introduced. Also, parts of the Forest managed by the National Forest Holding from the middle of 20th Century were subject to special management regime, adjusted to the particular character of this place, with limited logging activities.

The Białowieża Forest represents remnant of the temperate broad-leaved forest that once covered most of European plain. That type of forest in its primeval character is now reduced to ca. 0.2 % of its original area. The forest is not huge; slightly over 1,500 km2. Still, some hundreds of European bison roam there along with populations of large carnivores like wolf and lynx and many other species that are rare elsewhere in Europe.

Iconic European bison has been saved from extinction in Białowieża after the WW I. Image by Oli Wenhrynowicz.
Iconic European bison has been saved from extinction in Białowieża after the WW I. Image by Oli Wenhrynowicz.

 
To us, as scientists studying biodiversity, the main value of the Białowieża Forest is accumulated in a massive occurrence of large and old trees, high amounts of dead-wood and natural dynamics of forest stands all being very unique to this area and supporting thousands of different specialised species ranging from birds and mammals using cavities or building nests in the canopy to lichens, fungi and microbes dependent on different stages of tree life and its decomposition.

It is not surprising that Białowieża Forest has been an invaluable reference area for scientists studying natural characteristics of European forests.

Fungus making use of old log. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.
Fungus making use of old log. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

 
There is a mosaic of different forest types in Białowieża. Here typical wet forest (Alder karr) in late fall. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.
There is a mosaic of different forest types in Białowieża. Here typical wet forest (Alder karr) in late fall. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

 
Snags and logs of large dimensions are unique structures of the Białowieża Forest. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.
Snags and logs of large dimensions are unique structures of the Białowieża Forest. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

 
If you search for research articles written in English on Białowieża you receive almost 2000 hits, double of the figure for that you would get for Yosemite, for example. All of the above makes the Białowieża Forest incredibly precious natural heritage which without doubt should be protected for future generations. So, why log it much more intensively now?

This decision is an outcome of a long-term conflict about the fate of the Forest, focused around the debate if it may maintain its value without human intervention. Foresters with support of a large part of local population and some forestry scientists believe that the Forest requires continuous care in form of silviculture measures that “protect” the forest from unwanted changes like accumulation of dead-wood, lack of regeneration of desired tree species and presence of dying trees perceived synonymously with dying forest.

Protesting2_WieslawWalankiewicz
Many people demonstrated in Warszawa January, 17th against the plans to increase logging of the Białowieża Forest. Images by Krzysztof Niedziałkowski (above) and Wiesław Walankiewicz (below).

 
Protesting1_KrzysztofNiedziafkawski

 
On the other hand, environmentalists and scientists (mostly ecologists) focus on the value of the Białowieża Forest’s biodiversity linked to natural processes. For a long time, they have been proposing to cover the whole Polish part of Białowieża Forest with National Park (it’s presently only 16% of the area). The conflict seemed to be solved three years ago. The Park was not enlarged then, but instead new management plans drastically lowering logging levels in the managed part of the Forest were introduced.

However, the foresters did not stop lobbying for increasing the logging and the current outbreak of bark beetles killing old spruce trees provided them with an argument for that. A decision about increased logging encompassing large scale “experiment of ecological engineering” was made on 25 March 2016. According to the plan accepted by the Polish Minister of Environment, logging will be introduced on the two thirds of the Forest while the rest will be left untouched. The aim is to conduct an experiment to “answer the question who is right about the Forest past and future. Is it the ones who reckon that they know how to utilize natural resources and how to use them so that the whole world can consider them as primeval forests untouched by the human hand, or the ones who do not own such natural resources in their neighborhood, as they have damaged them in the past, and demand lack of any activities, which according to the first ones is leading to destroying these resources” [fragment of the minister’s decision; translated to English by the authors].

Big trees like this linden are extremely rare in European forest. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.
Big trees like this linden are extremely rare in European forest. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

 
We are convinced that the new logging plan will be disastrous for the Białowieża Forest and its biodiversity. It is a high time to speak up loudly against the increased cuts of the Białowieża Forest, so this natural wonder will be preserved for future generations.


Petitions for supporting protection of the Białowieża Forest are available on Change.org and ILoveBialowieza.com.

Ass. Prof. Grzegorz Mikusinski works at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He is interested in biodiversity conservation at different spatial scales, in Sweden and worldwide. His particular attention is directed towards forest environments and their bird fauna.

Dr. Malgorzata Blicharska works at Uppsala University in Sweden. She works with political and social aspects of biodiversity conservation, such as policy implementation, public participation, conservation conflicts, ecosystem services and spatial planning for conservation.


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  • Bark Beatle

    It needs to be emphasized that the foresters’ demand involving increase
    in logging does not concern the area of the Białowieża National Park. It
    concerns a small part of timberlands that constitute fragment of the
    Białowieża Primeval Forest, which covers total area of 150 thousand ha,
    and 65 thousand ha lies on the Polish side. The State Forests maintain
    the area of ca 50 thousand ha of the Białowieża Primeval Forest, and
    tree stands of the Białowieża Forest District, that tries to obtain
    consent to log attacked trees, constitute 12 thousand ha. However, major
    part of these grounds cover reserves and hydric and pioneer habitats
    excluded from usage. Therefore, dead spruce trees would be logged only
    within other grounds – total 7 thousand ha that constitute ca. 5 percent
    of the whole Białowieża Primeval Forest area.

    From the web site of the State Forest Company Poland:

    http://www.lasy.gov.pl/informacje/aktualnosci/spruce-bark-in-the-bialowieza-primeval-forest