10.05.2017 change 10.05.2017

The EC moves to the second stage of the Białowieża Forest procedure

The European Commission announced on Thursday that it was moving to the second stage of the procedure initiated last year against Poland in connection with the decision to increase logging in the Białowieża Forest. The Ministry of the Environment assures that it operates in accordance with Polish and EU law.

EC spokesman Enrico Brivio said at a press conference on Thursday in Brussels that the response of the government in Warsaw was "unsatisfactory" and the EC was still concerned about logging in this important Natura 2000 area. "That is why we have decided to move to the next stage" - Brivio said.

The spokesman for the Ministry of the Environment Paweł Mucha assured in a release sent to PAP that the activities were carried out in the Forest in accordance with European and national law, including the provisions of the Habitats and Birds Directives.

The Commission has sent a letter of formal notice to Polish authorities, calling for compliance with EU regulations of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Warsaw was given one month to respond instead of the usual two. Brivio explained that this was due to the urgency of the situation.

"The European Commission is requesting Poland to refrain from large scale logging in the Białowieża Forest, one of the last remaining primeval forest complex in Europe and an environmentally protected site, as part of the Natura 2000 network" - reads the EC press release.

The proceedings against Poland were initiated in June last year. Since then there has been an exchange of correspondence between the Ministry of the Environment and the European Commission on this issue.

The starting point was the decision of the Minister of the Environment taken in March, 2016, to triple the harvest of timber and start logging in forests, which were previously excluded from intervention. Polish authorities explain increased logging with the necessity to fight the plague of the European spruce bark beetle

According to the European Commission, the available evidence shows that these measures are not compatible with the conservation objectives of the site and exceed those necessary for ensuring the safe use of the forest.

"The logging is likely to adversely affect the conservation of the Natura 2000 site\'s habitats and species as well as cause irreparable biodiversity loss" - the EC stated.

The Commission is accusing Poland of breaching certain provisions of the Habitats Directive (on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora) and the Birds Directive (on the conservation of wild birds); the two directives are the basis of the European Natura 2000 program.

"As the logging is already being carried out in the forest, including the removal of 100-year and older trees and operations in the habitats which according to the Natura 2000 management plan should be strictly protected, the Commission is now sending a final warning" - the EC emphasised in the release.

If Poland fails to take appropriate action within one month, the case may be referred to the Court of Justice of the EU.

In turn, the spokesman of the Ministry of the Environment emphasised in the statement that the measures in the Forest "are focused only on restoring it to the state from the period when it was admired for its beauty and majesty".

"The aim of the Ministry of the Environment is to preserve the Białowieża Forest as a multiannual, multistage and multi-species forest. The Ministry\'s efforts are aimed at halting the loss of species and natural habitats protected in the area by the Habitats and Birds Directives" - he added.

The spokesman reminded that an inventory of the state of its natural environment was recently made for the first time in the history of the forest.

"Last Friday, April 21, Forest renewal was carried out in the Białowieża Forest. Young generation of deciduous trees was planted in place of the spruce tree stand, which died as a result of the bark beetle plague, and was removed. It pains me that this campaign was criticised by certain environments, which take an active part in the discussion about the Forest" - added Mucha.

Environmental organizations commenting on the EC decision pointed out that this means that the arguments of the ministry were unfounded and the increased logging was a breach of the EU law.

"This is absolutely the final warning for Minister Szyszko - he has one month to withdraw his decision. The Commission will not wait any longer" - Agata Szafraniuk, a lawyer with the ClientEarth environmental group.

Dariusz Gatkowski from WWF Polska pointed out that "short deadlines indicate that the violation of the law is obvious in this case, and the damage that can be done - likely and serious".

"The whole responsibility for this crisis lies with Minister (Jan-PAP) Szyszko, who sees no difference between the natural treasure that is the Białowieża forest and a tree plantation. Szyszko\'s irrational decisions, contrary to knowledge of nature, have put our country in a very difficult situation. I hope that Jan Szyszki\'s superiors - Prime Minister (Beata-PAP) Szydło and leader (Jarosław-PAP) Kaczyński, will stop the minister and save themselves the embarrassment" - said Greenpeace Poland\'s Robert Cyglicki.

The dispute over the forest escalated in March 2016, when the Minister of the Environment approved an annex to the Forest Management Plan for the Białowieża Forest District. It provides for increased logging, explained with the need to fight the mass occurrence of bark beetle attacking spruce. The Annex assumes an increase in timber harvesting to 188 thousand cubic meters in 10 years (2012-2021). The old plan assumed harvesting over 63.4 thousand cubic meters of timber in 10 years.

This decision was met with protest of scientific and environmental organizations, which argue that increased logging is unnecessary, and the so-called bark beetle outbreak is a natural process. Environmentalists also postulate that the entire forest be given the status of a national park.

From Brussels Krzysztof Strzępka (PAP)

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