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Last Updated: Friday, 11 July, 2003, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Chainsaws let rip in Europe's oldest forest
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in north-east Poland

Trees in the last remaining tract of Europe's original forest are being cut down, to the dismay of Polish naturalists.

Tree stump   Alex Kirby
Bialowieza will lose its natural character, because it will no longer be allowed to regenerate naturally
Pawel Sidlo
The trees are in the Bialowieza forest, in some respects a treasure comparable to the Amazon rainforest.

The official in charge says he is saddened by the government's acquiescence in the felling.

Polish conservationists are demanding European Union pressure to halt the destruction.

Although the trees concerned are infested with insects, they say, the forest's antiquity means it should be left entirely to nature.

Noah's ark

Bialowieza straddles the border between eastern Poland and Belarus. It is the last significant stretch of the primeval temperate forest which once covered most of lowland Europe, and has survived for 8,000 years.

Cross in forest    Alex Kirby
Bialowieza contains many war graves
It is home to wild European bison, with more than 300 animals on the Polish side. There are also wild boar, wolves, lynx, beaver, otter and elk, and myriad birds, plants and insects.

Pawel Sidlo, of the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, told BBC News Online: "Historically, and for the species it contains, Bialowieza is as important to Europe as the Amazon rainforest.

"We want all the old-growth forest there protected against any human interference."

The central core of the forest, 4,700 hectares, was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1979.

Around that lies another 10,000 ha, designated a national park. And beyond the park is a 50,000 ha area, some of it planted fairly recently, which is managed for logging.

Age no bar

The problem is simple: there are patches of the original primeval forest scattered throughout Bialowieza, not simply concentrated in the inviolable central section.

Felled tree    Alex Kirby
Fallen trees disfigure the forest
That is why conservationists want all the forest protected. But on 10 May a new management plan for Bialowieza came into effect.

It annulled a ban on the felling of trees more than 100 years old. In the two months since then foresters have felled a number of trees in old-growth stands in Bialowieza, the oldest probably about 130 years old.

The trees had all been attacked by spruce bark beetles, which eat the bark and leave the tree to die. But conservationists say this is a natural process vital to the forest's health.

As the dead tree rots it allows new life to emerge. And the beetles attack only spruce.

Rising toll

Yet the stump of at least one recently felled Scots pine now sits forlornly in Bialowieza. Evidence of the destruction is clear in the part of the forest managed for logging, and conservationists believe it is also happening within the national park.

Bark beetle poster    Alex Kirby
Bark beetle warnings alert local people
The park director, Jerzy Popiel, told BBC News Online: "It's a shame the environment minister agreed to the new management plan, which will mean the highest level of exploitation for 50 years.

"I feel a great sadness. Foresters are so powerful they can lobby the government and get the plan accepted. The minister did not consult me about it."

Stefan Jakimiuk, of WWF-Poland, told BBC News Online: "We have nine million ha of forests in Poland, so we can afford to protect Bialowieza.

Foreign friends

"In less than a year we'll be part of the European Union, and we think all EU citizens should feel responsible for the forest, because our government certainly doesn't. They could put pressure on the people doing the felling."

An environment ministry spokesman said it would publish proposals for protecting Bialowieza's natural forest, but "silvicultural measures" and bark beetle control would be allowed.

Pawel Sidlo said: "That means Bialowieza will lose its natural character, because it will no longer be allowed to regenerate naturally."

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