Poland breached law by logging in Białowieża forest: EU Court

European Court of Justice on Tuesday ruled on the illegality of logging activities in parts of the Białowieża forest in northeastern Poland.

The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the EU, ruled that Poland’s decision to allow large-scale logging in the forest violated the provision of EC law. The logging began in 2016, allegedly as a response to extensive bark beetle infestation.

The judgement of the ECJ is final, with no right to appeal being available. In its ruling, the court held that Poland failed to comply with the provisions of two directives intended to ensure the protection of the natural environment and various plant and animal species.

Since Poland has already withdrawn all heavy equipment from the forest, the ECJ ruling will not entail any financial penalties at this stage. However, the European Commission could request a fine to be imposed if the logging was resumed.

Seeing the wood for the trees

The Białowieża Forest, straddling the Polish and Belarusian border, has been designated as a UNESCO heritage site and is home to many rare species, including the European bison, which is considered Poland’s national animal.

Experts say that the forest contains an immense amount of dead trees. Whereas traditional forestry puts emphasis on removal of dead wood to protect against forest fires, environmentalist have argued that this degree of human intervention would be undesirable in these ancient woodlands. In addition, numerous species depend on the existence of decaying logs. Foresters, on the other hand, argue that logging is necessary to prevent insect infestation.

The outbreak of the European spruce bark beetle, a species of insect feeding on tree trunks, led Poland’s then-Environment Minister to order an increase in logging activities in 2016. Environmentalists immediately cried foul of the decision, arguing that it was a mere pretext for commercial logging and that many rare species would lose their habitats as a result. Ultimately, their protests managed to attract the attention of the European Union, which stepped in to address the issue.

Various environmental protection groups such as Greenpeace Poland and WWF have welcomed the ECJ ruling in a joint statement, calling it a “bitter lesson” for the Polish government.