Europe’s last primeval forest, Białowieża hosts about 1,070 species of vascular plants, 4,000 species of fungi, more than 10,000 species of insect, 180 breeding bird species and 58 species of mammals. Home to Europe’s largest population of bison, trees are as tall as 180 feet and its foliage stretches for nearly 1000 square miles between the border of Poland and Belarus. It was cited as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for its globally significant ecosystem. The bark beetle invasion, political management of the forest, economic interests, and climate change is threatening the longevity of Białowieża.
This map depicts protected and unprotected portions of the forest. Forest highlighted in green is under strict protection from UNESCO while the yellow highlight is forest under lenient state level protections. The Belarus side of the forest has been completely protected as a nature park since 1991. 17% of the forest is part of the Białowieża National Park Nature Reserve and is permanently protected from deforestation. This leaves 40,000 hectares of the forest (in Poland) vulnerable to state-sanctioned logging.
Last year, Environmental Prime Minister Jan Szyszko, signed a law allowing for massive logging of the forest in order to protect the forest from a bark beetle outbreak. The law permits the removal of 180,000 cubic meters of wood. Bark beetle larvae burrow under the bark of living spruce trees to lay its eggs and the developing larvae feed on inner woody layers and eventually kill the tree. Government officials are wary that the bark beetle infested trees will infect other trees of the forest. The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups argue that bark beetle outbreaks and dying spruce trees are natural processes that have been shaping the forest for centuries and are greatly contributing to biodiversity in the forest. Logging this much of the forest may cause more damage than the bark beetle invasion itself. Sumava National Park, which stretches across the borders of Bavaria and the Czech Republic, had a bark beetle outbreak in 2011. Evidence showed that simply logging the infected trees delayed forest recovery in Sumana National Park.
Cutting down forests not only threatens wildlife and their habitats but it also greatly contributes to climate change. Deforestation is responsible for around 20% of global CO2 emissions. 80% of the world’s land animals and plants live in forests and many cannot withstand the impacts of deforestation.
Economic considerations further complicate conservation within Białowieża. The forest covers more than 80% of the Białowieża district in Poland, making it a significant contributor to the region’s income, much of it generated from lumber and government subsidies. Revenues primarily come from lumber and government subsidies. Local residents fear that expanding the protected zone in the forest will discourage investment, increase unemployment and reduce the community’s tax revenues. Polish state foresters generate annual revenue of 7 billion zloty and control 96% of the Polish timber market which provides raw material for wood, paper and furniture exports. In a 2016 press release, Polish state foresters promised a supply of 40m cubic meters of wood in 2017. Loggers and hunters are also a key electoral constituency of Poland’s right wing Law and Justice Party.
Climate change is also threatening the old growth forest. Elzbieta Malzahn of the Forest Research Institute said “The average annual temperature has risen by 0.8C over the past 50 years. This is a lot for a primeval forest.” There is also less rain during the summer, winters are warmer and end sooner forcing vegetation to grow earlier. According to national park officials, the level of ground water has fallen by 20 inches in the past 30 years. A Bialowieza National Park employee said “Spruce roots are very shallow and they just run out of water. We are observing falling number of spruce.”
The Bialowieza Forest is threatened by environmental, political, and economic factors. It is unclear what the best plan of action should be to address the bark beetle invasion but one thing is clear: Bialowieza Forest is the “last untouched wilderness of Europe” and it is crucial that it’s preserved for future generations.
Written by: Danielle Bayer