Foresters want to save the Białowieża Forest

“Why do we need to save the Białowieża Forest? How do we plan to do this? Foresters are debunking the myths”- was a title of Konrad Tomaszewski- the Director-General of the SF conference, which was held in Warsaw on 4th July. The Director-General letter addressed to the media is available below.

“Why do we need to save the Białowieża Forest? How do we plan to do this? Foresters are debunking the myths”- was a title of Konrad Tomaszewski- the Director-General of the SF conference, which was held in Warsaw on 4th July. The Director-General letter addressed to the media is available below.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

since 2012 a significant part of the Białowieża Forest has been dying before our very eyes. This is not a normal cycle of passing and regenerating in nature, but a phenomenon on an environmental disaster scale, the biggest on this area since the 1920s. An unprecedentedly extensive and long-standing bark beetle gradation is changing the Forest in a way that scientists find hard to predict and for many people, enchanted by the Forest as it was, it may be startling. We, the foresters, just pity the beautiful Białowieża Forest. The current disaster may have been prevented, if only we were allowed to take action. It is still not too late to at least reduce its scale.

            The State Forests have been taking care of the Białowieża Forest for nearly 100 years. Thanks to foresters' effort the Białowieża National Park and further numerous natural reserves were created; it is they who were restoring the Forest after the devastating clear-cuts performed by Germans, Russians or the British company The Century; foresters reintroduced the European bison to the Forest as well as to other Polish forests; they protected the Forest against various threats and managed it in accordance with scientists' recommendations, in order to recreate its natural, diversified character; they harvested timber for local community, without posing a threat to the persistence and wealth of the Białowieża environment.

            Today, a number of eco-activists, scientists and media try to make Polish people believe that it is the foresters who destroy the Białowieża Forest, moreover foresters are accused of the worst intentions and deeds. I cannot allow an over 90 year old heritage of the State Forests to be deprecated. The State Forests comprise of people, who live in forests, work there every day, understand it, what is more they are professionals and have a sense of a public mission to fulfil. They also love the Białowieża Forest. For forestry entrants and foresters nationwide it is viewed as a “pilgrimage” destination towards knowledge acquisition and opportunity to observe nature. Later, foresters use these experiences and introduce certain patterns in other forests. Saying that we ‘cut the Białowieża Forest for money’ or do not obey the law is a cynical and filthy lie.

Dear All, there are too many emotions, simplified prescriptions and myths. Please, get acquainted with the fundamental facts, rather than unquestioningly believe in “urban legends”. Only then you will be able to form your own opinion. 

  1. The foresters say from the very beginning that the real problem is not the gradation itself but its scale: the largest in over 100 years. There are at least 8% of dead trees in the Białowieża Forest. Within only a few years, the bark beetle killed almost 900 thousand spruce trees alone, on the area of 7.2 thousand hectares in three forest districts in the Białowieża Forest (that is 14% of the area administrated by those three forest districts). We lose popular, beautiful and admired natural heritage, which has been structured thanks to the active and passive protection.
  2. Will the nature handle the disaster itself? The Białowieża Forest is an extremely precious forest complex, however, not extensive enough and very susceptible to the pressure of civilization, therefore the entirely natural processes are an illusion. Today we may observe how areas affected by the bark beetle that are left without human intervention are dominated by tree species that are heavily shadowing the area, for example: hornbeam, hazel and invasive grasses. The structure simplification of habitats that are left to long-term passive protection is supported by scientific research. For example, there are several times more insect species connected to spruce trees than to hornbeam, therefore the dieback of the first and the expansion of the latter brings specific consequences. There is of course a place for spontaneous processes in the Białowieża Forest, however, we must proceed with a certain amount of providence and therefore introduce there an active protection, in order to maintain a massive biodiversity of species.
  3. The most precious and natural fragments of the Forest have been protected for a very long time and will be still protected in the Białowieża National Park (BNP) and natural reserves within the area of forest districts in Białowieża. BNP forest area amounts to about 10 thousand hectares, the part of the Białowieża administrated by three forest districts amounts up to 50.2 thousand hectares, out of which 12 thousand hectares constitute reserves. Actions taken by the foresters do not involve the National Park at all, but tree stands in forest districts - mainly those that come from plantings, were used for a long time or are supposed to be rebuild, in order to match its composition with habitats they live in.
  4. Foresters alone expanded the area of passive protection in the Forest. Atthe end of May 2016 the Director General of the State Forests determined, within the area of Browsk and Białowieża forest districts, a total area of 5.6 thousand hectares of the so called referential area, where the human interference is restricted to the minimum. The whole area, which is left to natural processes, constitutes – including natural reserves- 17.6 thousand hectares within the area of forest districts in Białowieża, that is 33% of the Forest administrated by the State Forests (if we add the national park the number increases to 45% of the whole area of the Białowieża Forest). Reserves with reference area will constitute a benchmark for the remaining area of the forest districts where we will implement forest management methods in order to regenerate tree stands devastated by the bark beetle and to restore proper conditions of protected habitats. Let us drop the cliché, in practice we will compare the effects of two methods – inactivity, suggested by activists, with foresters’ actions assisted by natural processes.
  5. Effective control of bark beetle gradation is possible. Since 1990s, each year almost all spruce trees inhabited by the bark beetle in forest districts in Białowieża were removed from the forest, in that way bark beetles were unable to inhabit other tree stands. The scale of sanitation cuttings was restricted – usually from several thousand up to 25 thousand m3 depending on the year. It all changed when the new forest management plan (PUL) for Białowieża forest districts for the years 2012-2021 was implemented: the then Ministry of the Environment, under pressure from non-governmental organizations, radically limited the number of logged trees and excluded further areas form usage, which made it impossible for foresters to remove the appropriate number of attacked trees. During the first year of applying the new forest management plans, only half of the 30 thousand inhabited spruce trees were removed, therefore the gradation could develop. In 2013 the number of inhabited trees in the Forest equalled 100 thousand m3, and in the following year almost 200 thousand m3. This precipitous increase continues until the present day. Foresters were unable to take action and as a result within five years, the bark beetle killed about 1 million m3 of spruce trees (out of which only 190 thousand m3 were removed)! In order to constrain the disaster, at the beginning of 2016, the amendment increased the limit concerning tree harvesting for the Białowieża Forest District.
  6. Nobody is going to cut down the Białowieża Forest! Suggesting that rescue operations performed by foresters will involve the whole forest complex, that large scale clear cuts are planned and that such rescue cuttings were not present in the Forest before is a manipulation. This is not the way ordinary forests are managed, not to mention the Białowieża Forest. Three forest districts in the Białowieża annually log half as much as one typical forest district in this region. In 2016, when eco-activists alerted that foresters “are cutting down the Forest”- forest districts in Białowieża logged altogether nearly 65.7 thousand m3 of timber, that means... less than one year ago (in 2015 – 83.6 thousand m3). How can activists say that the number of spruce trees killed by the bark beetle is not high and the current gradation is not extraordinary when at the same time they claim that the liquidation of allegedly restricted consequences of this disaster will mean the destruction of the Forest?
  7. We log not only the sick trees. Within the area of forest districts in Białowieża, foresters obey the regulations concerning forests, nature conservation, public safety, applicable forest management plans, the plan of protection tasks and orders given by the nature protection service and fire service. It means that they log:
  • dead and abandoned by the bark beetle spruce trees, located close to roads and tourist trails, on which they may fall posing threat to people (they will break within a few years), or those that are hazardous in case of fire (if in a given place there is a large accumulation of dry biomass). Removing dead trees due to safety reasons is performed within forest districts only where necessary;
  • occasionally the trees of other species, if they were damaged by bending spruces, hanging above the roads;
  • still alive spruce trees, but inhabited by bark beetles – to prevent insects from leaving them and attacking healthy trees. Sanitation cuttings are not performed in natural reserves and reference area;
  • alive and healthy trees of other species - as part of the silviculture and cutting treatments scheduled in the forest management plan (PUL) for forest districts in Białowieża and the Plan of Protection Tasks for the Białowieża Forest Natura 2000 area. For example, the maintenance of oak-hornbeam forest protected by Natura 200 requires removing hornbeam or hazel, which today fill the gap after dead spruce trees; active protection requires activities such as: the maintenance of a heliophilic oak forest, a place of occurrence of protected butterflies.  

The scale of the latest activities is limited because the priority is to remove dead spruce trees, which pose a threat to tourists on the trails and are hazardous in case of fire, and to perform sanitation cuttings of spruces inhabited by bark beetle, in order to hinder the pace of gradation development.

  1. Fallen dead wood is left in the forest until its natural decay. If, due to safety reasons, standing dead spruces are felled close to trails in natural reserves or in reference area, they are also left there. Dead wood is necessary in the forest: many precious species live in dead wood. However, in the Białowieża Forest and forest districts there are so many dead trees that they guarantee maintaining positive balance for biodiversity. The increase in the amount of dead trees will not impact the further increase in number of species, instead it will enhance fire hazard and CO2 emission.
  2. The use of forest vehicles in the Białowieża does not mean more cuttings. When field works are performed with such a large number of trees, due to safety reasons it is advisable to use a harvester. Only one person operates it and is additionally protected by the reinforced cabin. The use of harvester does not mean that we will cut more trees than it is allowed by regulations, plans and a good sense. The same work will be completed faster and foresters will be able to sooner facilitate the secured area for tourists and local citizens.
  3. Logging during the bird breeding season is fully legal. In accordance with regulations, rightly performed forest management by definition does not violate the prohibitions concerning species protection of plants, fungi and animals, given in the Nature Conservation Act. In Poland and all over Europe the population number of most bird species is stable or grows, and scientists do not mention forest management among factors influencing successful breeding and the future of whole populations. Therefore such a general exemption in case of forest management was always present and is being implemented in other UE countries. There are no works within protection zones around nests of protected Accipitriformes (there are 49 of such zones in forest districts in Białowieża).
  4. The Białowieża Forest will not become a plantation. When in a given place a cluster and not single spruce trees will be removed, foresters will not plant there a row of spruce trees but trees appropriate for this habitat, as an addition to the natural regeneration if it is too weak. This happened in the Browsk Forest District in April, when over 3500 oaks, maples and linden were planted as a supplement to self-seeding within the area inhabited by the bark beetle.
  5. We will not make any profit. The reason why we perform cuttingsis to provide public security, to limit the dieback of further tree stands and to complete actions included in forest management plans and the plan of protection tasks. We sell logged timber (apart from wood that is left to its natural decay) - otherwise we would expose to loss the State Treasury on behalf of which the State Forests manage publicly owned forests. However, the diversity of nature conservation forms and restrictions of forest management in the Białowieża Forest makes its forest districts profitless. It is obvious that foresters have different tasks in the Forest (subsidies from the State Forests’ Forest Fund to the forest districts in the Białowieża Forest for shortages compensations amounted to 23 million PLN in 2016).
  6. It is not true that foresters have closed the Białowieża Forest for tourists. Periodicexclusion orders were introduced by forest managers from Białowieża and Hajnówka forest districts and they concern specific and selected areas (where vehicles and sawyers are operating and if there is a large accumulation of dead spruce trees posing a threat), not the whole areas of forest districts. As activities concerning elimination of danger progress, trails and sites are facilitated. Up-to-date maps may be found on forest districts’ websites and on – the vast majority of the Białowieża Forest and the most popular trails are open.


Konrad Tomaszewski

Director General of the State Forests