Bialowieza – a fairytale forest threatened

On the Polish-Belarusian border sits Bialowieza forest. It is the last remaining section of an 8000 year-old forest that once spread across Europe. For all this time it remained untarnished by humans. In it reside lynxes, wolves, bison and birds. Naturally fallen logs provide habitat to moss, extraordinary mushrooms and squiggly insects. In summer it is a vibrant green, in winter, snowy white and each season allows different species to thrive. Its ecosystem is a historic artefact, a remnant of what once reigned in Europe. It is Europe’s last primeval forest, a breathtaking place where fairytales are inspired and it is under threat.

17% of Bialowieza is a designated national park and a UNESCO heritage site. Beyond that area there are currently small logging allowances that allow locals to collect firewood to heat their homes without jeopardising the ecosystem. But now, the Polish government has decided to change these allowances and increase the logging area from 6000 cubic meters to 53,0000. They have cited an outbreak of European spruce bark beetle pest as the reason. The government maintains that cutting down these infected Spruce trees would save other species from infestation in the forest. This would also mean logging spruce trees inside the protected zone which would amount to 35% of the UNESCO area. However, scientists have argued that the natural rhythm of the forest will overcome this difficulty, which is part of normal long-term forest dynamics, and hardier species which resist the pest will spread to replace the spruce trees over time. Scientists have also made serious allegations that the real reason behind the increased logging allowance is commercial and that the Polish minister for the environment considers the forest as a wasted potential. The Polish academy of science and environmental activists are vigorously protesting the plan.

Humans are too quick to intervene and fix perceived problems in nature. The irony here is that the human solution to rotting wood is to destroy trees and create buffer zones to interrupt the flow which makes Bialowieza unique. The solution would have the same outcome as the perceived problem – the destruction of a beloved heritage site. Sometimes it is better to just let nature take its course.

bison in Bialowieza forest
Bison leaping in Bialowieza forest photograph by Herr stahlhoefer


Main image: Renata Krzysciak-Kosinska & Adam Wajrak for UNESCO