Europe’s last major parcel of primeval woodland could be set for a reprieve after the EU asked the European court to authorise an immediate ban on logging in Poland’s Białowieża forest.
Around 80,000 cubic metres of forest have been cleared since the Polish government tripled logging operations around the Unesco world heritage site last year.
The European commission said that it had acted because the increased logging of trees over a century-old “poses a major threat to the integrity of this … site.”
EU environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella told the Guardian: “We have asked that Polish authorities cease and desist operations immediately. These actions are clear, practical steps that the European commission has taken to protect one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe.”
Environmentalists applauded the move, with WWF Poland’s Dariusz Gatkowski calling for the commission “to quickly implement today’s positive decision and take Poland to court, fulfilling its role as guardian of Europe’s natural heritage and the laws that protect it.”
Agata Szafraniuk of the ClientEarth legal firm, said: “Decisive and immediate action is the only way to avoid irreversible damage to this ancient forest. We hope that the court of justice will impose the ban on logging, as a matter of urgency, before breaking for the summer holiday, which starts on July 21st.”
Last week, Unesco threatened to put Białowieża on its list of world heritage sites in danger unless Poland halted the deforestation, which has felled 30,000 cubic metres of coppice in just the first four months of 2017.
But quick compliance from the Polish government is thought unlikely, after the country’s environment ministry tweeted that it was “delighted” at the prospect of a court case yesterday. A second tweet said: “We have hard data on the #Buszowska (Białowieża) forest and we will be pleased to present it before the tribunal.”
Last month, Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, called for the site to be stripped of its Unesco status, despite fears of a collapse in its biodiversity, which includes wolves, lynx and Europe’s largest bison population.
The Polish government argues that increased tree fells are needed to contain a bark beetle outbreak in Białowieża, although the science behind its case has been denounced by many of the world’s environmental scientists.
Campaigners trying to block the Białowieża logging say that armed foresters in camouflage units are now routinely stopping and searching young people in the area after a spate of lock-ins around tree-clearing machines.
Ariel Brunner, the senior policy chief for BirdLife Europe said: “The tragedy of Białowieża is more than just the devastation of nature, it is the spine-chilling destruction of memory and an affront to democracy and legality. In taking a clear and strong stance on the ecological destruction of Białowieża, the European commission has today shown its ‘heart of oak’.”