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Białowieża forest is under threat ! Our complete reporting…

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Vidéo reporting (February 2017) shows extracts from our interviewes and gives a sight about the Białowieża forest’s debate. You can watch at it here : Bialowieza report video (v.EN)

NEWS (August 2017) After several important events, medias in the world have finally pushed back the case of the polish forest to the front. In June, Unseco established a report worrying about the future of this natural world heritage site. After this, demonstrations by small groups of ecologists, but with the support of Greenpeace and several other associations, have happened in Białowieża. Reaction from the governement ended up to the closing of about half of the forest to visitors or any other people than the lumberjacks. Finally, the European commission took Poland to European Court for not respecting Natura 2000 laws. Great news, but unfortunately too late as the forest has suffered already major cuttings and the social and political mood around Białowieża’s case is creating severe trouble in the population…Anyway, the governement has alrdeay declared that they will keep on cutting !

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At the end of year 2016, we spent 3 weeks of investigations in Poland, and a complete report have been made by our team that brings a comprehensive analysis of the situation. Unfortunately, until now, the full text report is not available in English but only in French or Polish. (Any help for translating this report is welcome, please contact us.) Short extracts from this reporting are translated here under.

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A very natural forest, often called « primary »

The term « primary » refers to a forest whose ecosystems and processes have not been altered by any human activity. Virtually no forest in Europe can claim this criterion. On the other hand, there are still forests with little anthropogenic influence. These forests, if they are no longer quite « primary », can at the very least be described as « very natural » or possessing a « high degree of naturality ». Confined to relict areas in Europe, they are found mainly in the mountains in inaccessible places. In the plain, they have almost all disappeared. Białowieża is one of the very last truly natural forests in lowland Europe, and undoubtedly the best preserved areas of temperate deciduous forests and mixed forests. In this sense, it is the closest forest to the « primary » state. And this is why this feature is often attributed to it, even in official statements.


Białowieża: the most studied forest in Europe

Recognized since the beginning of the 20th century for its qualities of naturalness unique in Europe, the Białowieża Forest has always been in the spotlight of naturalists and scientists. In addition to an important School of Forestry, many study departments have been set up in order to benefit from the exceptional framework for their research. These organisations employ a large number of people, partly from the local population, but also from other parts of Poland and even from Europe, students and researchers who create a community within the small town. All these people who analyse the evolution of this forest confer it the most envied title of “most studied forest in the world”. Most of these organisations have gained international reputation in their discipline. Alike the Research Institute of Mammalogy, Department of Biology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, founded in 1952 and managed today by Rafał Kowalczyk. The Institute has published more than 20 reference books and 1,500 scientific articles in more than 60 international scientific papers. This work in the field of large herbivorous and predatory mammals is most prominent, and the rediscovery of the Denhel effect, which explains the fact that shrews reduce the volume of their cranium during the winter, is also part of it. The geobotanical station of the University of Warsaw is also renowned, notably thanks to the work of Professor Janusz Bogdan Falinski who led it from 1979 until his death in 2004 (when Bogdan Jaroszewicz took over). Falinski has set up an extensive system of permanent research plots, which are monitored on a daily basis and have been providing information in various fields for many years. There is of course also the National Park team, which produces comprehensive reports about its own area each year. Another example is the European Centre for Natural Forests of the Forest Research Institute, operating in various fields, including forestry entomology, where innovator Jan Jerzy Karpiński and his current successor, Jerzy Marian Gutowski, proved themselves.


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Jan Szyszko – Minister of the Environment

At first a forester, then a forestry professor at the university, he entered politics in 1991. In 1997, he failed to be elected to Parliament but was appointed Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources and Forestry; he will be again between 2005 and 2007, before being appointed to the same position for the third time in 2015 in the government of Beata Szydło. Student, he did his forestry thesis on … the spruce bark beetle !


Assaulting institutions and associations

Denounced by Greenpeace Poland a few weeks before their vote in parliament, several draft laws threatening freedom were submitted in December 2016. In the package of proposals, some concern procedures related to environmental issues. In particular, the General and Regional Directorates for the Protection of the Environment (Generalna Dyrekcja Ochrony Środowiska, GDOŚ) are to be abolished. They are responsible for many aspects of the management of Natura 2000 sites, but are more actively involved in sustainable development and especially environmental impact studies of infrastructure projects. This institutional organisation was particularly illustrated by playing an essential role in the opposition to the motorway project in the Rospuda valley (see p. 26]. Its duties would be entrusted to the Forestry Office, which is expected soon to concentrate all environmental powers… In the same spirit, the law tends to prevent most environmental organisations to be able to deliver opinions in the same kind of files. Finally, according to documents revealed by Greenpeace, the government plans to penalize the civil environmental challenge posing threats of up to three years of imprisonment for protesting ecologists. In addition to all this, the government has also attempted to oust the parliamentary media through new access rules, resulting in a strong reaction from opposition parliamentarians and multi-day demonstrations in several major cities in the country. Some of the proposals were voted in an atmosphere of chaos, and voices rose to demand their cancellation.

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The spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus)

The spruce bark beetle, or bostryche typographer, is a small insect of just a few millimetres which lives under the bark of the spruce, where larvae dig galleries. It is not the bark beetle itself that causes the death of the tree, but rather a fungus which it dissects by transporting it from tree to tree. In the same way the damage to the wood is not due to the bark beetle which digs its galleries just under the bark in the external part of the trunk but to the spread of the fungus which can reduce the economic value of the wood. The spruce bark beetle attacks only spruces, and only in a very exceptional and marginal way attacks other species such as pines. The bark beetles are « weakness parasites « , that is to say they will colonize weakened or diseased trees, but also trees freshly cut down, broken or fallen. When a spruce is weakened, it emits substances (kairomones) which allow the bark beetles to spot it. At the beginning of the impairment phase, it is not possible to diagnose a diseased tree. It is thought that the bark beetles also attacks healthy trees, they could actually be trees already weakened but with no visible symptoms. The cyclic outbreaks of this insect are well known in Europe where they are favoured by a convergence of events of climatic origin. Spruce is a species that can withstand long, cold and severe winters, and that needs constant moisture from the soil.

At each occurrence of a climatic event unfavourable to spruce, phases of expansion of the bark beetle were witnessed. It is believed that they occur naturally at intervals of a few decades. Currently, these outbreaks occur more often and their intensity increases. This phenomenon is directly linked to global warming, which tends to make the summers warmer and to increase droughts and to make the winters shorter and less cold. These are all elements which cause, year after year, various stresses to the spruces. In some parts of Europe, storms, which are also more frequent than in the past, may encourage outbreaks. In addition, hot summers favour the breeding of the bark beetle, which, instead of an annual generation, can accomplish two or even three.

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Artificial and natural control of the bark beetle

The spruce bark beetle is one of the most feared insects by the forestry community because its breeding capacities are very large and its outbreaks can reach significant thresholds where many trees can be killed, which can be particularly impressive in monospecific planted forests. Several techniques are usually used to try to control its populations, the most common of which is to place traps that resemble inverted plastic bottles or horizontal slot plates. Inside the container are pheromones that attract insects (sometimes an insecticide is added to kill them). Trapping campaigns are systematically conducted in the managed part of forest in Białowieża. The disadvantage of this technique is that these traps also attract the natural predators of the bark beetle like Cleridae beetles. Trapping is often accompanied by cutting of trees that could be attacked, such as fallen trees or symptoms of infestation. It is the increase of these preventive cuts that is in question. Without human intervention, various factors spontaneously end the outbreaks of bark beetles.

In general, return of normal weather conditions will limit beetles that suffer from severe winters or reproduce less if the summers do not stretch out too long. Also noteworthy is the pressure of specialized predators such as bugles or Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) (a small woodpecker that feeds on bark beetle), the number of which rapidly increases during prey-outbreaks. But above all and even in the absence of the first two factors, starting from a certain density of population, regulation phenomena change the number of bark beetles to very low thresholds. As the number of potentially prone trees decreases, more and more beetles are concentrated in these remaining trees, thereby reducing their ability to feed themselves and thus weaken the overall population. Population whose reproductive rates are now approaching zero. Although it is difficult to foresee when the current outbreak in Białowieża will cease, the number of receptive trees has already decreased sharply, and the rapid decline of the bark beetle is expected soon. This will have the collateral effect of reducing the numbers of its predators, such as the three-toed woodpecker. These fluctuations in numbers, most populations of all species are naturally affected, and they only exceptionally persist in the ecosystem.

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The spruce bark beetle: a pest or benefactor?

The spruce bark beetle is not new in the forests; it has co-evolved with the spruce tree without ever disappearing for tens of millions of years. Ecosystems, and their related biodiversity, are highly dependent on disturbances (fires, storms, windfalls, outbreaks, etc.) that allow natural processes to experience pioneering phases, then maturation and then senescence, with each of these phases a specific biodiversity that is subordinated to it. This phenomenon is also called « ecological resilience », which is defined as the ability of an ecosystem, habitat, population or species to regain normal functioning and development after significant disturbance. Thus, in the years when the bark beetles are abundant, there is an abundant fruiting of the spruces, which will ensure their possible natural regeneration. Everywhere, from Germany [see photos] to Sweden through the Czech Republic, natural regenerations of spruces have been witnessed following the outbreaks of bark beetles.

In Białowieża, a recent report from the Life + ForBioSensing program, which studies forests by satellite, showed that the number of trees affected by bark beetles was lower than previously thought. And it also showed a significant natural regeneration of spruce. This may lead to the conclusion that bark beetles are an essential link in forest dynamics, having a positive effect on biodiversity through the creation of open areas, but also on the renewal of tree populations.


What do they want to cut ?

The previous forest management plan, in 2012, included the possibility of cutting 63,471 cubic meters of timber in the Białowieża forest district for the 2012-2021 period, of which 771 cubic meters of elderly trees and 62,700 cubic meters of young trees. But in spite of this agreement, the local Forestry Office had already used some 57,000 m3 of timber in 2015 (90% of the limit set in the agreement). In the fall of 2015, In Białystok, a draft annex was aded to the plan, which gave the remaining six years the possibility of exploiting not less than 260,000 m3 in addition (more than three times the volume scheduled for in the previous plan), but among which 198,900 m3 could be « large wood » even in the oldest parts of the forest (this would correspond to an approximate increase of 258 times the volume fore sawn by the previous plan), and to the modification of about 20% of the oldest parts of the forest! The new plan would lead to a situation almost identical to the management experienced in all other commercial forests in Poland …

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In Europe, citizens have a stake in their forest

Several attempts to privatize public forests have emerged in Europe during the last decade. In Switzerland, England in 2013, France in 2015, they all failed in the face of citizen mobilisation. In Belgium, a recent attempt by the Walloon government is also hampered by associative and civic mobilization. The reasons for this willingness to make public forests available to the private sector are mainly economic. The big companies that control the timber sector have an appetite for growth, which makes small companies and local sawmills disappear. After having subjected to their mode of industrial exploitation and exhausted what could be in private forest, they must now turn to the public forests. As a consequence of not only of depriving citizens of common goods, but also of lower standards of environmental regulation applying to a growing portion of forests…


The last 100 year history of the Białowieża forest

1918 Independence of Poland

1920 Border war against Russia

1921 Setting up of the headquarters of the Office of Forests in Białowieża

1921 Declared Nature Reserve

1929 Reintroduction of bison

1932 Creation of the National Park

1945 Yalta agreements that cut the forest in two

1945 Restoration of two national parks, Polish and Belarusian

1977 Named “Biosphere Reserve” by Unesco

1979 Named “Humanity heritage” by Unesco

1980 Beginning of claims for more environmental protection

1990 Increasing environmentalist’s claims

1996 Doubling of the surface of the National Park to reach 16% of the forest

2000 Announcement of the extension of the National Park to the entire forest

2000 Retraction under pressure from the locals

2000 Laws for the protection of areas put to the consent of the local population

2003 New forest management plan, criticised as being productivity aimed by environmentalists

2003 Creation of important reserve areas by the Forest Office

2004 Poland joins the EU and Natura 2000 enters into force in Białowieża

2007 New negotiations for the enlargement of the National Park

2010 New call to halt of procedures

2010 Campaign of different NGOs to withdraw control of the locals on Białowieża

2011 Consultations for a new management plan

2012 New management plan adopted, reduction by three of the volumes of wood to be taken

2013 Challenging by the locals regarding new plan

2015 Law and Justice (PiS) wins the elections. Andrzej Duda President and Beata Szydło Prime Minister

2016 Announcement of a new management plan and significant increases in national and international cuts and reactions

2017 A series of laws is looming to increase the pressure on the Polish forests, including Białowieża, and to concentrate the powers in the hands of the forestry administration


 

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Life + Aquila: a European program for the Lesser Spotted Eagle

The project was carried out by the regional office of the Forest Agency in collaboration with several Polish associations and international experts. The project was carried out between 2010 and 2015 with the main aim of halting the decline and increasing populations of the Lesser Spotted Eagle in north-eastern Poland, while developing and promoting models for sustainable landscape management, as well as raising awareness among the local population and tourists about this theme. The project included the restoration of several hundred hectares of abandoned hay meadows, which are favourite hunting grounds for eagles.


Energy policy puts pressure on forest

The energy policy of the new Polish government is not unrelated to the situation of forests. A policy which, in summary, aims to promote domestic coal in thermal power plants, while restricting the facilities previously granted to wind farms (which cause multiple conflicts in rural areas and shifts the majority of profits to foreign companies). However, as a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, and taking into account European requirements to reduce greenhouse gases, Poland offers to develop geothermal energy in urban areas, especially the development of Biomass-based electricity (two new plants specially designed for this purpose were built recently). The Minister of the Environment has an important project for wood energy, which will lower the criteria according to which wood can be exploited for this purpose. More wood could also be burned in coal-fired power plants. Large-sized timber is currently excluded from this use and is reserved for manufacturing industry (Poland is the fourth largest exporter of furniture worldwide). Another part of the wood of small size is reserved for the use of the local populations and mainly sold at small price for the heating. The new ruling would allow burning in the power stations just about any wood (including trees from Białowieża). The papermakers and the manufacturing industry fear a shortage and a sharp rise in the price of wood, and oppose the project, together with NGOs concerned about the destruction of forests. But the Ministry is keeping its course by pointing out the excessive amounts of « poor quality timber » in forests. The management of the allocation of criteria for wood energy would be entrusted to the Forestry Office. The tax incentives that were once granted to energy production with timber had been phased out by previous governments, but Jan Szyszko would like to reinstate them.

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