Emerging threats to the Białowieża Forest, one of Europe’s last remaining wilderness areas

From various news sources and personal contacts I’m hearing about some emerging threats to the Białowieża Forest, which at 216,200 ha (2,162 km2 or 835 square miles) is one of Europe’s largest and most ancient forested wilderness areas, and one of the few places where you’ll still see European bison (Bison bonasus)roaming free.

Despite its designation as a World Heritage Site, in recent months the Polish government has revealed plans to increase the amount of logging in the forest, ostensibly as a tree disease control measure.  However Polish scientists dispute this and claim that the real motivation is commercial – see the commentary and letters in this week’s Nature.  Here’s a quote from that article which provides some context to the concerns:

“[the] Białowieża management plan limits logging in the forest to 48,000 cubic metres of wood per year — enough to allow locals to gather firewood. But on 10 November, the local forest administration proposed an amendment that would allow large-scale logging in sections outside the central 17% of the forest that is a national park. They cited an outbreak of the bark beetle pest (Ips typographus) in Białowieża’s Norway spruce (Picea abies). In one forest district where logging is currently limited to 6,000 cubic metres per year, the allowable yearly volume would increase to 53,000 cubic metres”.


Interestingly, both Ips typographus and Picea abies are native to these forests and any large-scale outbreak would probably constitute a disturbance that is part of the natural dynamics of the forest. A recent piece on the National Geographic site by conservation biologist Stuart Pimm is worth quoting from in this regard:

“To…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.  It is not surprising that Białowieża Forest has been an invaluable reference area for scientists studying natural characteristics of European forests.” [my emphasis]


This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about the Białowieża Forest – here’s an article from the Guardian newspaper from 2011:  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/06/poland-environmentalists-foresters-primeval-forest

Is it too much to hope that the Polish government takes notice and strengthens, not weakens, the protection of its natural heritage?  And allows natural processes to determine what happens in this woodland, rather than trying to manage every aspect of its ecology.

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