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Ancient Białowieża Forest Facing Major Destruction

By Grzegorz Mikusinski & Malgorzata Blicharska 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...

By Grzegorz Mikusinski & Malgorzata Blicharska

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.

The majority of forests stands in this UNESCO World Heritage site has never been cut there due to continuous protection. First, the crowned heads kept it as a game reserve. Later came modern forms of protection such as national park and nature reserves covering parts of the Białowieża Forest. 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.

Large tree
Big trees— like this linden — are extremely rare in European forests. Image by Grzegorz Mikusinski.

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

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

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.

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

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

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 there is a plan to log it much more intensively now?

This decision is an outcome of a long-term conflict about the fate of this Forest, focused around the debate if it may maintain its value without human intervention. Foresters with support of a large part of local population 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 species and presence of dying trees perceived synonymously with dying forest.

On the other hand, environmentalists and scientists 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 to lobby for increasing the logging and the current outbreak of bark beetles killing old spruce trees provided them with an argument for that. The limited logging levels given in the management plans are proposed to be increased five-fold. Moreover, after many decades of silviculture without clear-cutting, the new regulation would allow for it.

We are convinced that these changes would be disastrous for the Białowieża Forest and its biodiversity. It is worthy to speak loudly against the increased cuts of the Białowieża Forest, so this natural wonder will be preserved for future generations.

Many people demonstrated in Warszawa January, 17th against the plans to increase logging of the Białowieża Forest. Image by Krzysztof Niedziałkowski
The iconic European bison was saved from extinction in Białowieża after the WW I. Image by Oli Wenhrynowicz.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Stuart Pimm
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).