The Bialowieza Forest is being threatened by an infestation of bark beetles
Tree felling is aimed at saving the wider forest
But the logging strategy has proved controversial
Fallen leaves crumple underfoot as we walk, dappled sunlight breaking through the canopy above us – only birdsong and the buzzing of insects break the silence.
To walk through Poland’s primeval Bialowieza Forest is to step back in time. Scientists say many parts of this precious ecosystem have been largely untouched by humans since the trees started colonizing the land at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
Extending over nearly 580 square miles, Bialowieza is the oldest and best-preserved forest of its kind in Europe. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and straddles the Polish and Belarus border.
Bison success story
One of the forest’s original inhabitants is the European bison and represents one of the many conservation successes. The species was almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th Century but thanks to a breeding program there are now nearly 600 animals roaming the forest on the Polish side alone.
Thousands of species have been recorded in the forest and scientists say that this is potentially only 50% of what really lives there. It is one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the continent.
Bogdan Jaroszewicz, from the University of Warsaw, has been studying the forest for more than two decades. “This is the best preserved piece of European mixed deciduous forest,” he said. “There are no better preserved forests of that type, so it is unique on the world scale not just the European scale.”
To many outside Poland, the forest was little known until a crisis hit. Since 2012, there has been a major infestation of beetles that bore into the tree and both feed and breed beneath the bark, killing the plant. It’s estimated that 20% of the spruce trees in the forest have been attacked by these bark beetles.
About 35% of the forest is protected, with 17% forming the National Park area. The rest is considered mixed use with parts utilized for commercial purposes such as logging, and is managed by foresters.
Outcry from environmentalists
The managed part of the forest is divided into three areas – Bialowieza, Hajnowka and Brodsk. The local population also relies on the forest for firewood.
In order to deal with the beetles, the Polish government decided to triple the quota for logging earlier this year in the Bialowieza district alone. It argues that the best way to deal with the infestation and halt the spread is to remove trees that are already affected.
But it’s a decision that has caused an international outcry from environmentalists and NGOs who believe that infected trees should not be cut down and removed but that the forest should be left to recover naturally.
While visiting Bialowieza in August we met Andrzej Antczak, the associate head forester of the Hajnowka district. He took us into the forest where we were shown freshly attacked spruce trees. We were able to see how bark beetles dig their way into the tree trunk.
Spruce trees are particularly susceptible as they have a very shallow root system making it hard for them to absorb enough water to produce enough resin to protect themselves, the forester explained.
Bark beetles usually attack trees more than 80 years old and this outbreak, according to scientists, could be associated with a change in temperature.
Should nature take its course?
Antczak is adamant that if infected trees are not removed from the forest then the epidemic could get a lot worse and spread to other tree varieties.
He showed us a pine tree that was in the process of being attacked and explained that the increase in logging was not for commercial proposes but for the protection of the forest.
“There is a conflict in ideologies,” he said. “A passive ideology and one that is aimed at actively protecting the forest. If we don’t set a clear goal the conflict will drag on.”
Jaroszewicz is one of the scientists who believes the forest should be left alone so that nature can take its course.
“Bark beetle outbreaks in Bialowieza Forest in the 20th Century took place almost every decade. That’s a normal natural process.” he said. “Natural forests will deal with the problem.”
He said logging trees that were part of natural stands and had not been planted for commercial purposes would have the most detrimental effect.
“Logging them and planting with the species composition designed by a forester is like killing the natural forest because we can’t re-establish that again.”
The logging decision raised concerns with UNESCO and the European Commission who both sent teams to carry out their own studies. For now, the proposed increase in logging has now been suspended while experts from the National State Forests carry out a survey.
In a recent statement, Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko said: “The study will let us assess the state of the nature in the Bialowieza Forest. We will be able to see what has died and to what extent.”
The study is due to continue until September 15 this year. Greenpeace, together with the Wild Poland Foundation, has been active in the forest, setting up patrols to make sure logging does not take place in the interim.
Greenpeace member Natalia Bojarowska, who coordinates the patrols in the forest, says the increase in logging is unrealistic.
“To fight with the bark beetle and possibly win you would have to log 80% of the infested trees – it’s just not possible,” she said.”
Logging issue divides community
The local population appears to be split over the issue. Many that we met blame environmentalists because they have not been able to get access to firewood. Many told us that they were in favor of logging if it would stop the infestation which they fear will take hold of other tree varieties.
Others though are calling for a complete ban on commercial logging in the forest saying the local community gets a lot more back from tourism.
Local resident Joanna Lapinska, a campaigner against logging, said: “This is a place that needs protection. It can’t be like this each few years when we had a conflict, it needs to be protected.”
While logging has been suspended, the quiet of the forest is undisturbed, though its future is uncertain and for now, the forest is fighting bark beetle on its own.