Paradise Lost: The Devastation of Białowieża Forest

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This is not directly about birds, but it was so sad to read about this that I couldn´t resist to publish it. To me personally Białowieża Forest has been a very strong symbol for a primeval forest for decades, and it hurts when money goes before everything else. (Editor’s note)

(Jarosław Krogulec & Gui-Xi Young; Photo: Tomasz Wilk; 26 April 2017)

Jarosław Krogulec, Head of Conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland) recounts the tragic devastation Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Narewka road took its travellers on a journey to what felt like a whole other world, to a whole other age – for the road leads you deep into the heart of Białowieża Forest. Here, straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, lies a living, breathing relic of antiquity – the largest surviving remnant of the vast primeval forest that once swathed the Great European Plain in a sea of lush greenness from the Atlantic to the Urals.

This is Europe’s ‘Yellowstone’. The forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area; under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe. It is a haven for biodiversity – unparalleled on this continent – hosting a rich panoply of fauna and flora, notably including Europe’s largest bison population.

“Białowieża Forest….under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe.”

But as John Milton wrote in ‘Paradise Lost’, the minds of men can make ‘a hell of heaven’ and today the Narewka trail feels more like a road to perdition. The scale of man-made devastation that has been wreaked here in recent years is spine-chilling. Miles upon miles of forest have been logged, leaving a trail of environmental destruction as far as the eye can see.

In some areas, it seems like nothing has been considered too ecologically important to escape the executioner’s chainsaw. At one spot, a majestic 150 year old giant spruce has been recently reduced to a stump. If it had been left as deadwood, it would have found ‘life after death’ and provided biodiversity for forest wildlife for up to a century to come. A little further on, you can count each ring on the stump of a felled 80 year old oak tree. And what is left is simply on borrowed time – the trunks of the trees that line the forest roads are nearly all branded with ominous red symbols, cruelly marking them out for death.

For centuries, what ensured the richness of Białowieża were natural processes that had seen very little human intervention, particularly in comparison with other European forests. However, only one-third of the Polish area of the forest is officially protected as a national park, while the remaining two-thirds are subject to forest management, and increasingly mismanagement.

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