A preserved section of Poland's Białowieża Forest. Kasper Pempel/Reuters

Poland’s Białowieża Forest is uniquely well-preserved. But for how much longer?

You may well not have heard of Poland’s Białowieża Forest, but perhaps you should have.

This vast 835 square-mile woodland straddling the Polish-Belarusian border—it’s pronounced “Bya-Woe-Vye-Zha”—is unlike anywhere else on earth. It’s a “European Serengeti” of mixed-leaf old growth forest, seamed throughout with ancient tree stands untouched by humans, a place that shelters the continent’s largest population of vast, shaggy European bison. An inland ocean of green, its heart has UNESCO World Heritage status, with oaks predating Columbus’s voyage to the Americas and a deep, silent core sheltered far from roads and houses. Right now, however, the forest is under serious threat.

This March, Poland’s environment minister approved plans to log the forest across an area of 188,000 square meters. The forest core listed by UNESCO would remain untouched, but for Polish nature lovers—and seven environmental organizations who have complained to the E.U.—the move is still a bit like the U.S. government deciding to dynamite Old Faithful.

The logging doesn’t come entirely without reason. The Polish government insists that logging the area is necessary to counteract the effects of a severe bark beetle infestation that is ravaging the forest. Clearing out some wood could, they insist, help stop the plague and save the rest.

The European Commission, however, disagrees. This June, it gave Poland just a single month (as opposed to the customary two) to answer concerns about felling in the forest, after which the country may be punished by the European Court of Justice. Poland’s government, meanwhile, is in turn prosecuting the forest’s authorities, asserting that it was this authority (appointed by the previous government) that was responsible for letting the forest get into its current, beetle-infested state. So who is right?

According to Polish Greenpeace, the mistake is actually elsewhere, in the assumption that the bark beetles are in themselves a problem at all. Certainly, they destroy trees, but as the organization’s Katarzyna Jagiełło tells Citylab:

“Bark beetle is a natural occurrence that happens in the forest regularly. It’s a symptom of a weak ecosystem rather than a factor in creating one, and you can only call the beetles a pest if you are engaged in [timber] production.”

The forest has in fact survived and recovered from previous infestations, the fallen timber ultimately providing assistance to future growth, says Jagiełło.

“We have one area—Białowieża’s so-called ‘High Swamp’—where there was an infestation 15 years ago,” she says. “The forest managed to regenerate itself very well, specifically thanks to fallen trees that gave shelter to younger saplings.”

Clearing out old wood would disrupt this natural regeneration, though it is arguably the replanting of trees afterwards that would do the most damage. Almost all tree stands that are over 100 years old in the forest, and there are many, have regenerated naturally, making them not just highly unusual within Europe but biodiverse cradles for the regeneration of newer forest areas around them. Even if felled or cleared timber is replaced by new plantings, these would destroy the natural growth that makes so much of the forest unique.

Bison grazing on the forest’s edge. (Kasper Pempel/Reuters)

Given the weight of expert opinion against the felling, there has to be some other reason for continuing with the logging. The most obvious one is money. Environment minister Jan Szyszko has repeatedly said that clearing out old wood from the forest (an ecologically disastrous policy) could generate 700 million zloty ($173 million). In a poor region that hasn’t witnessed the same economic rebound as others in Poland, that’s a lot of badly needed income.

The short termism on display still seems short-sighted. Over the long-term, tourism encouraged by a pristine forest could easily earn more. The area around Białowieża’s UNESCO Reserve, which covers 17 percent of the forest, is already considerably wealthier than other rural parts of the wider Podlasie region thanks to the visitors it receives. Were the park to be extended across the forest’s whole extent, the potential revenue could push up yet further. Realizing the potential of the woodland as it is could help to publicize one of Poland’s greatest asset: its possession of wild habitats that, by comparison, make much of Western Europe’s countryside seem as controlled as a tennis court’s lawn. But as the chainsaws continue to whirr, the time left to fully preserve Białowieża’s uniqueness is ticking away.

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