The Białowieża Forest extending over 1600 km2 between Poland and Belarus is the last large remaining fragment of the primeval deciduous forest of the northern temperate zone in Europe. Exceptionally biodiverse, the forest is home to more than 5,500 plant species, and 11,564 animal species, including the largest population of free-ranging European bison. Animals from the large carnivores like wolves and lynxes, to the rare nesting songbirds, woodpeckers, and owls all rely on the forest for their habitat of old growth and standing dead trees. Białowieża Forest is a hotspot of unique biodiversity and a fascinating source of scientific knowledge, and stands as a much needed ecological blue-print for the restoration of forests in Europe and the world.
In 2012, the Minister of the Environment approved the Forest Management Plans for the three Forest Districts of the Białowieża Forest that met recommendations of the European Commission, given requirements to protect integrity of this Natura 2000 site. The approved management plans limited timber extraction to 48,500 m3 per year, on average, for next 10 years, and ensured the protection of 100-year old stands. This was recognized as a solution which supported local needs for timber while safeguarding the ecological uniqueness of the Forest.
Since the Plans were approved, the Forest Districts have not fully adopted them. Increased timber harvesting, formally justified by the need to curb bark beetle outbreak, greatly exceeds the annual plans and constitutes a serious threat. Environmental NGOs have repeatedly expressed their concerns that one of the Forest Districts has already reached the established 10-year logging limit, and would have to abandon timber harvesting for the next 6 years, while the other two forest districts will enter this phase within the next two years.
This significant increase of the average annual limits of timber harvesting have resulted in an update of the Forest Management Plan 2012-2021 for one out of three Białowieża Forest districts. The update includes significant increase of logging, removal of snags and does not guarantee the protection of forest stands older than 100 years. The Ministry of Environment argues that "active management" by harvesting is needed to protect the forest from spruce bark beetle outbreaks and fire risk. It stands against modern scientific research and recommendations of many major scientific institutions in Poland.
The bark beetle outbreaks are driven by multiple factors including spring weather conditions, drought and spatial configuration of spruce stands. The coevolution of spruces and bark beetles involved a "cycle" which starts with the number of beetles peaking, followed by the death of adult spruces in some patches, which later are characterized by a high regeneration of young spruces. Thus bark beetles are forest engineers, shaping the long-term dynamics and structure of the forest, on which many species, like the three toed-woodpecker, and numerous species saproxylic beetles, depend upon. The forest ecosystem is more than adult trees in an even-aged stand. Treating bark beetle as a pest from a forestry perspective to produce timber, is not justified in the context of the protection of biological diversity and ecological processes, particularly in the case of Bialowieza Forest. Controlling the outbreak, which probably will collapse in 1-2 years without any intervention, is not possible without infringement of the Habitats Directive.
The protection of the Bialowieza Forest dates back to the fourteenth century. It is now protected by several Polish, European and international protected area systems such as UNESCO World Heritage List and Natura 2000. 17% of the Forest is also a Polish National Park, although for more than 20 years scientists and experts have recommended the protection of the whole Bialowieza Forest as a National Park.
The Bialowieza National Park was first established in 1921 and included in the list of World Biosphere Reserves in 1977. In 1996 the area of the National Park was doubled to its current size of 105 km2. A total of 121,8 km2 outside the National Park were declared as Nature Reserves. The rest of the Bialowieza Forest has undergone commercial timber extraction and hunting. Many old-growths are still unprotected, and the silvicultural practices used do not fully protect ecological processes.
The Bialowieza Forest was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In 2014, the UNESCO World Heritage was extended to the whole Polish side of the Bialowieza Forest. It was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its significant on-going ecological and biological processes and because it contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species. Find out more here.
Since 2004 Bialowieza Forest is a Natura 2000 site, part of the ecological network for the conservation of wild animals and plant species and natural habitats of Community importance within the European Union. It consists of sites classified under the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. Natura 2000 protects 92 animal and plant species and 12 habitat types in the 631 km2 of th Białowieża Forest.
On 18 November 2015 the State Council for Nature Conservation in Poland passed an official statement against the planned increase in forestry activities. This was followed by similar statements by the Committee for Nature Conservation of the Polish Academy of Sciences on 26 November 2015, and the Scientific Council of the Bialowieza National Park on 4 December 2015. Moreover many other scientific institutions and individual scientists issued their statements criticizing plans to increase logging in the Bialowieza Forest, including Biology and Nature Science departments of the University of Warsaw, University of Krakow, University of Wroclaw and University of Katowice.