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 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.
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).
  • jack Dunster

    This area is a benchmark – a place of biodiversity that is administered by Poland for the generations to come. This forest is unique.. a treasure. I can only say that such individuals who wish its destruction are not foresters – a profession I myself studied. As to a government intent on this forest’s destruction, I can only say we will remember your actions – and there will be a time when you will be judged for them….

  • George Draffan

    Let’s help UNESCO have the political will to defend its Bialowieza heritage site. Please write to UNESCO Heritage Director Mechtild Rössler and to UNESCO Europe Unit Chief Petya Totcharova

  • Pär Berglund

    Go for it! We all love forests and what would that be without trees!!

  • Pär Berglund

    Go for it! We all love forests and what would that be without trees!

  • Andrés Peredo

    We should do something, now!!! Is any iniciative going on to protect the forest?

  • Mariusz Opas

    It;s pretty one way view of the situation. And one must say – a big exaggeration.
    Nobody wants to destroy anything – and espacially not the goverment.

    Białowieża Forest is not a uniform area. Primeval forest, or semi-natural forest covers about 45% of it – and is strictly protected by law. Nobody will ever do antything there, nor nobody wants to. It’s all about protecting natural processes.

    The rest, although human-regulated is also very important, and threated in special way. Nobody wants to make that Forest a source of Timber. There is really plenty of room for that in Poland.

    Forester just want to respond to the mass attack of bark beetle (Ips typographus) which attack was very massive.
    The Spruce is main tree species in that part of Białowieza Forest, so that beetle is always present – but few years ago Ecological groups banned foresters from sanitation cuts, and that created mass death of trees on pretty big area.

    Foresters don’t want to leave everything to natural processes in that part. They want to keep the character of the forest, and integrality of tree stands.
    And this whole situation hardly is driven by goverment – it’s more about 2 forms of protecting very important part of environment.
    Also calling foresters plans “mass logging” is just preposterous. Foresters want to reach about 20-30% of annaul volume incease, which in catastrophical situation that has accured – is really, really small amount.

    Please some check facts

  • Malgorzata Blicharska

    Yes, the Polish NGOs are actively trying to hinder this dangerous development. So far it seems that the Minister of Environment is still waiting with signing the decision on increased logging. Therefore no need for big action now, but the threat is absolutely not over. If there will be new developments, we will let you know.

  • anonymous

    The issue with the discussion about Bialowieza is that the discussion is not based on the hard facts but on the people emotions. As in this blog post, where are the facts? 1500km2?where is the comment that it is not just in Poland, about 60 000 ha is in Poland, the rest is in Belarus. One has a feeling that all the area is located in Poland. The area of national park is 10 000 ha. 50 000 managed by the state forest company in Poland.
    Bisons? did they survived on their own because of lack of logging in BF or maybe was protected by evil foresters and biologists?
    “the majority have been never cut” – why don’t give a number here? I would love to know that
    “First, the crowned heads kept it as a game reserve” – the whole 1500 km2 or just a part of it. What one can read at the web page of BFD is that large areas of BF was cut and utilized in 1800’s and the beginning of 1900’s
    Why you do not write that the 25-30% of 50000 ha that are managed by state forest company have been protected in a form of nature reserves? that gives additional 15000 ha of protected area, in total 25 000 ha
    “Massive logging” “five-fold” currently the size of annual logging volume in BFis about 20 000 m3. The standing stock per ha is 350 m3/ha (only in the forest managed by SFC). so, the total standing stock is ~350m3/ha * 50 000 ha. Totaly it is 17 500 000 m3. You write that the annual cutings will increase by 5 (100 000), but it is your hypothesis because as you write there is no plan yet. Than the level of annual cutting in relation to the standing stock will be 0.6%. In relation to total annual increment caluculated as 50000 * 5m3/ha/year it will be 40%. The cuttings will concern mainly spruce and it will be not last forever as the amount of the spruce that suffer of bark battle will decrease in time.
    Also one can read at the web page of SFC (Bialowieza District) about the structure (species, sites, age) of the forest governed by State Forest Company. Sites appropriate for broad leaves dominates so why there is so much spruce and pine that dominates in the stands (human activity?)? There is a lot of spruce, pine (54%), alder (24%), oak and hornbeam dominates on only 15% of the area (protected in the form of nature reserves).
    There are a lot of old forest but also quite a lot of young forest. Older than 100 years -> 38%, quite a lot indeed.

    For me the protection of the BF that was in the past: 10000 ha as national park, and 15 000 ha as reserves with very careful and responsible management on the rest of the area (planting broad leaves adopted to sites) was a good solution. Sadly, the ecological side had hard to understand that.

  • Adam

    Please sign the petition to polish goverment to stop cutting down bialowieza forest.

  • marcin

    Authors of papers should mention what is going to be cut by foresters? This is important, because forest in Bialowieża National Park and neigbourhoud is one thing and the production forest is another one.

  • Nick

    It’s a unique area wich most definitely deserves protection.

  • giuseppe cosenza

    Bialowieza… il mio sogno, il mio paradiso… NON TOCCATELO!

  • Sven

    Bialowieza puts Poland on the World map in a positive and attractive light. Research and conservation efforts breath with progress and innovation. This new trend is a 180 turn, putting it all on a backwards retarded trend. Lovely to see local and international support for keeping Bialowieza. Keep it up!

  • Frederik Thoelen

    I just returned from Bialowieza (my fourth time) and it’s such a fantastic place with lots of biodiversity! This is how forests should look like in Europe!
    Last week, I made a movie about Bialowieza. If you are interested:

  • Jo
  • Eva Schorer

    It is unbelievable that decisions are made to log Baialowieza forest. With 99.9% of Europe”s forests totally destroyed, you would think that people would value this lasting treasure that is priceless. To consider logging this last remnant of what Europe once looked like is a disaster, unfounded and a short minded thinking. This would be a major loss to Europe and humanity.

  • Simon Oak

    Please sign the petition and like the forest on Facebook. Show the Polish government that the world is watching how they destroy a UNESCO world heritage site.

  • Pat Kaczmarek

    I am of Polish heritage. The Białowieża Forest is a national treasure. It is short sighted to let a new administration degrade the forest for economic gain.

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