The European Commission, a managing institution of the European Union, has reported Poland this month to the European Court of Justice, and has asked the court to impose measures requiring the Polish government to suspend logging in the Bialowieza Forest, which is one of the last areas of primeval forest in Europe. In this post, I would like to present you my opinion about the recent conflict in the Białowieża Forest in Poland. I would like to present actors in the conflict, and discuss why this conflict has become more political than factual during last years.
Białowieża Forest vs. Białowieża National Park
This is a common misunderstanding among people who take the floor in the debate, i.e. Białowieża Forest is not the same as Białowieża National Park.
Bialowieza Forest is one of the last and largest preserved fragments of lowland deciduous and mixed forests in the European Plain, which used to cover Europe between the Atlantic Coast and the Ural. It is located on the border between Poland and Belarus. It has a total area equal to 150 582 hectares. Out of this area, 59% is located on the Belarusian side (87 363 ha), while the rest (41% or 62 219 ha) is in Poland.
>>READ MORE: Forest-biodiversity-loss harms us all!
And here are coming really important numbers. There are three forest districts that operate on the area of Białowieża Forest (Białowieża, Browsk and Hajnówka). These forest districts are a part of National Forest Holding “State Forests”. Forest districts carry on regular forest management operations (sometimes with more constraints) on the area of 51 700 ha, what gives 34% of total area of Białowieża Forest, and 83% of Białowieża Forest located on the Polish side. Recently, due to protests of environmentalists Białowieża Forest has been divided on two parts. One-third is excluded from regular forest management activities, while the rest is. More about Białowieża Forest, you can read in the raport prepared by Wesołowski and collegues (link under this post).
Białowieża National Park (BNP)
Białowieża National Park is also a part of Białowieża Forest. It is known for the protection of the best preserved part of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s last temperate primaeval forest fragment that once stretched across the European Plain. The total are of BNP is equal to 10 501,95 ha, what gives ca. 17% of total area of Białowieża Forest located in Poland. Around 50% of BNP is under strict protection. In total, around 15 000 ha of Białowieża Forest is under some kind of nature protection (24% of Białowieża Forest on Polish side).
>>READ MORE: Protected areas save biodiversity worldwide
In my opinion, Białowieża Forest can be calmly called a “Polish Yellowstone”. For instance, the forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area. Nevertheless, what makes it “the Polish Yellowstone” it is the most numerous in the world free-ranging population of the European bison, the largest terrestrial mammal of the European continent.
Actors in the conflict
In mass media, the conflict over the protection of Białowieża Forest is often presented as a conflict between ‘foresters’ and ‘ecologists’.
“Foresters” – State Forests and friends
In this dispute, “foresters” are, first of all, employees of State Forests administration. State Forests is a Polish governmental organization that manages state-owned Polish forests on behalf of the Polish State Treasury. It was founded in 1924 and oversees about 7.5 million hectares (an area that constitutes about 25% of Poland’s territory) of forested terrain. As mentioned before, three forests districts of State Forests are located in Białowieża Forest. To the group of “foresters” we can also include all actors that have direct or indirect interests in continuing forest mangement and increase in logging operations (wood industry representatives, part of Ministry of Environment, and also part of forest scientists). All these actors are related to each others. For instance, Minister of Environment selects the General Director of State Forests, while the Director of State Forests is crucial regarding the funding for forest scientists, including the Forest Research Institute in Poland.
In my opinion, wood industry in this conflict is an outsider, as any wood-related company would not like to be accused for logging the primaeval forest in Poland. You can imagine, that money are in a game, as decreased logging can reduce finances of State Forests, which are monopolist on the market with highly centrally planned economy. For centrally managed systems, any flexibility is very dificult in the market reality. Moreover, foresters from State Forests do not want to convert their part of Białowieża Forest (managed by their three forest districts), to National Park because State Forest employees are afraid, inter alia, of losing jobs, deterioration of working condintions (employees of National Park earn much less than foresters from State Forests), losing their high status in the community and prestige. A great scientific article about why foresters oppose the enlargement of the Białowieża National Park has been writen by Krzysztof Niedziałkowski, from the Polish Academy of Sciences (you can read it in English here).
“Ecologists” and friends
The term “ecologists” in Poland is often misused. Mass media present a typical “ecologist” as green or an eco-fanatic – an obsessed, unstable and unqualified person. Some people, including the General Director of State Forests, call such people also “ecocentrists”, “ecoterrorists” or even “green nazi”. Wesołowski and colleagues wrote:
“Labelling people with a different opinion in this way means that they are defeated from the very beginning. The public learns that irrational amateurs, for some foul reasons, put a spoke in the wheel of rational actions of experts (foresters). All is clear then, no need to read/watch further, it is immediately obvious who is right.”
Nevertheless, these “ecologists” represent people or organizations, which demand the Białowieża Forest to be protected as a ‘natural’ forest and which oppose the plans to increase logging. Next to regular activists (nature non-profit organizations, e.g. Greenpeace), they also represent representatives of forest sciences, including distinguished professors.
The ignition of the conflict
On one side of the conflict, we have Polish environmentalists, who say that logging is threatening the existence of flora and fauna in the forest, including species of rare birds, such as the white-backed woodpecker, who lost 30% of their population in forestry-managed areas in the 1990s and 2000s. On the other hand, we have foresters from State Foresters, who claim that the logging is for protection and for ecological reasons, protecting against the European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus). From 2012, the amount of wood that can be extracted by foresters annually was reduced from about 120,000 m3 to just 48,500 m3 (1,700,000 cu ft) and most of it is sold locally, mainly as firewood. The current government, including the General Director of State Forests and Minister of Environment argue, that this reduction of harvest (done by previous government) has caused the spruce bark beetle massive outbreak.
Climate change + bark beetle vs. Norway spruce
This argument, in my opinion, is not valid. I was talking to a bark beetle specialist (professor at the university of life sciences, who wanted to remain anonymous due to political pressure in this conflict) and he told me that Minister of Environment does not include in his arguments climate changes, that occured in this area as well. For instance, since 2012 in Białowieża Forest we can observe now European mantis, that before was only present in the southern part of Poland. Next argument of the professor was that during warm and dry 2015 year, the European spruce bark beetle was finishing his development in only 3 weeks (usually it took 2 months!!!).
Finally, spruce is not very resistant species regarding warmer climate conditions, what only helped Ips typographus. Therefore, according to the professor, cutting infestated trees would only slow down the outbreak process, but it would not stoped it.
In consequence, on 25 March 2016, Jan Szyszko, Poland’s Environment Minister, former forester and forestry academic, announced that he would approve a tripling of logging in the forest, from the 2012-2021 (10 years tactical forest management plan) limit of 63,000 m3 almost exhausted at the time — to 188,000 m3, again described as being necessary to combat an infestation of the bark beetle. Since that moment, in every moment foresters remind society that they are extracting only infestated by bark beetle ill spruces.
Again, this argument for me is a non-sense, and I agree here with the Martin Schroeder – professor of Forest Entomology at the Department of Ecology at SLU, who was interviewed by Michał Żmihorski from Polish Academy of Science. The research of professor Schroeder mainly concerns the ecology and population dynamics of the spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus). In the interview (in Polish), he said that theoretically, we can reduce the population of bark beetle by removing infestated trees, but under the condition, that we are able to remove in exact time big amount of infestated spruces. He added that in practice there are a lot of limiatations to do that properly. One of these limiatations is time as we have to remove infestated trees in very short period of time. Second, it is the Białowieża National Park, in which we cannot remove any infestated tree as this area is under strict protection.
>>READ MORE: Can we increase biodiversity with logging?
Who is right, and how conflict should be resolved?
“Wrong people, bad results”
Do you remember the interview that I conducted with professor Sun Joseph Chang from Louisiana State University (USA). You can find it in the link below.
Profesor Chang refered to tropical rainforest conservation in the following way:
” Tropical rainforest conservation is fundamentally a land allocation problem. We, as forest economists, deal with problem of scarcity. In production economics, we are interested in how to use limited resources to get the most output value. In consumption, we are interested in how to spend the limited amount of budget to get the most utility. Tropical rainforest conservation, in this sense, is nothing but a consumption problem of allocating land base and budget. Do we want to allocate tropical rainforests for conservation instead of material consumption? Do we want to allocate limited funds to support tropical rainforests rather than other benefits may it be public health, transportation, education, etc.? Ecologists are fundamentally interested the ecological processes and functions, ecosystem itself and the impact of changes to the ecosystem. Money and resource allocation are the farthest things on their mind. Their role and /or contribution are to remind the people how important or valuable these tropical rainforests are, not how much of them we should conserve. When they dominant the efforts on tropical rainforest conservation, they are ill equipped to do that and only bad results could happen. That is why I said, wrong people, bad results. “
I completely agree with Profesor Chang, and I can link his point of view with Białowieża Forest in Poland, i.e. it is purely a land allocation problem. In the Białowieża Forest the choice can be very simple, either we put all Polish side under strict protection and call it Białowieża National Park, or we continue regular forest management on this area.
In my opinion, the choice is very simple, especially if we recall that this area is very precious and quite unique in Poland and in Europe as well, what many biologists, enthomologists, botanists and other scientists researched in the past. Second, State Forests in Poland oversees a forest area that constitutes about 25% of Poland’s territory. Would it be a problem for them to leave these 62 thousand hectars untouched if they manage on the area of about 7.5 million hectares? I do not think so. For economist, this choice is very simple, especially if we have abundance of forest in Poland, and not so many National Parks. In Poland, we have 23 national parks, which cover around 315 thousand hectars (1% of the country). In my opinion, the whole are of Białowieża Forest in Polish side should be converted to National Park as we have these goods in scarcity. Low supply – high value, right?
Politicians and bureaucrats from Brussels
The decision is very simple, but the problem is that this dispute became already very political in Poland, and European Union as well. Politicians started to smell the votes in the coming elections. Next, European Union started to interfere in Polish problems, and Polish people like in Stalin times started to report each other to Strasburg and Brussels. In my opinioni it is disgusting, and I am completely against any intervention in Polish cases coming from Brussels.
I am aware that our present Minister of Environment, and General Director of State Forests are not qualified to solve these kind of problems, and they even make things worse, but the intervention from EU is unacceptable. Polish people know what is going on now in Poland the best, and I am 100% sure that it will be reflected in coming elections, without any support coming from European Union, Soviet Union or any other foreign organization. Białowieża Forest has survived so many times already, and believe me or not, it will survive present Minister of Environment and General Director of State Forests as well.
Wesołowski T. et al. 2016. Dispute over the future of the Bialowieza Forest: myths and facts. A voice in the debate.
Niedziałkowski K. 2016. Why do foresters oppose the enlargement of the Bialowieza National Park? The motivation of the State Forest Holding employees as perceived by social actors engaged in the conflict over the Bialowieza Forest. Forest Research Papers Grudzień / December 2016, Vol. 77 (4): 358–370
Main photo: Białowieża Forest. Author of the photo: Rafał Chudy.