Preserving Bialowieza

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DAWN in Bialowieza forest, and the bellowing of deer in rut competes with the buzz of chainsaws. The rival rackets sum up an increasingly ill-tempered argument over the Polish half of the ancient woods that straddle the frontier between Poland and Belarus. The row has reverberated beyond the forest’s borders, and indeed beyond Poland’s. It pits competing visions of environmental stewardship and economic development, and of Poland’s path under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Last month the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to fine Poland for ignoring an earlier order to halt logging in parts of the forest protected under EU law—in effect, nearly all of the 60,000 hectares of it that lie in Poland. In July UNESCO, the guardian of the planet’s human and natural wonders, urged the government to end logging or risk Bialowieza’s demotion from a world heritage site to one “in danger”, causing anger in Belarus, whose half of the forest would also be affected.

International alarm is understandable. The mixed forests that once blanketed central and western Europe have long since been turned to timber or fuel. Bialowieza’s towering oaks, hornbeams and spruces, plus the European bison and other endangered species that roam beneath their canopies, offer a unique glimpse of the continent’s ecological past.

Gamekeepers began to safeguard Bialowieza in the 15th century as hunting grounds for Polish kings (and, after Russian annexation in 1772, for tsars). It suffered only two episodes of untrammelled exploitation—by German occupiers in the first world war and by a rapacious British company in the 1920s. These prompted Polish foresters to turn pristine areas into nature reserves and, in 1947, a 5,000-hectare (19 square miles) national park.

Today Poland’s forestry service insists that it, too, is being a responsible steward. The felling being condemned by Brussels was necessary, it argues, to prevent dead trunks from collapsing onto cyclists and walkers (the EU court decision exempts cutting on safety grounds, but argues that the Poles have gone much further). It justifies the controversial use of heavy machinery by noting the scale of the task: in the past three years perhaps 1m spruces have succumbed to bark beetle. However, most scientists point to dry conditions, not insufficient pruning, for the bark-beetle outbreak. They also note that microbe-rich deadwood is vital to forest renewal. Studies have found that removing it reduces biodiversity. The older the tree, the more fertile its remains, says Rafal Kowalczyk, who runs the Polish Academy of Sciences’ research station in Bialowieza.

Many local residents shrug off such worries in any case. Those with ties to the long-declining lumber industry regard rotting wood as a wasted resource. The larger number engaged in tourism fret that rows of lifeless trunks put visitors off rather than lure them. “How many people will come to see dead trees?” huffs Jerzy Sirak, the mayor of Hajnowka, a town on the western edge of the forest.

Quite a few, reckons Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who as prime minister in 1995-99 doubled the national park’s size to its current 10,500 hectares. Bialowieza’s value, he argues, lies in being a laboratory for natural processes, not a museum cabinet stacked with a preordained mix of species, much less a source of wood. Even with the recent uptick in revenues from logging, the forestry service spends a net 20m zlotys ($5.5m) a year on Bialowieza. Given low lumber prices, closing that deficit would require logging on a scale no one is willing to contemplate. Tourists, meanwhile, spend around 72m zlotys annually in the area, according to one study.

A plan Mr Cimoszewicz co-wrote a few years ago to turn the region, one of Poland’s poorest, into an ecotourism hub, complete with an impressive science centre, has been shelved for lack of funds. NGOs’ long-standing demand to place all of Bialowieza under full protection, as Belarus did with most of its part in 2012, faces opposition from local authorities that suspect eco-absolutism will curb growth. “We used to look to Poland as an example; now they look to us,” observes a Belarusian ecologist wryly.

PiS looks unmoved by environmental arguments. It dismisses protests by concerned scientists, NGOs and ordinary citizens—which range from signing open letters to chaining themselves to tree-harvesters—as political attacks by foreign and domestic opponents of its “Poland first” nationalism. As for EU finger-wagging, Jan Szyszko, the environment minister, once declared that Eurocrats “can’t tell a bark beetle from a frog”.

Perhaps Mr Szyszko, a forestry professor, agrees with one local forestry official who says that Bialowieza, weakened by climate change, emptying aquifers and pestilence, “can’t survive without man’s help”. Mr Cimoszewicz offers an alternative explanation for the government’s heavy-handed treatment of it. Bialowieza, with its royal connections, stately oaks and majestic roaming bison, remains a potent symbol of Polishness. “Whoever controls it, controls the country,” he reckons.