What is happening in The Białowieża Forest right now?

Already about 8% of trees, and not 5% as it was previously assumed, has died in the Białowieża Forest, as to the estimates of the scientists conducting ForBioSensing project show. Unfortunately, the number of dead tree stands is rapidly increasing.
16.06.2017 | Krzysztof Trębski , Office for Media Directorate-General of the State Forests

Already about 8% of trees, and not 5% as it was previously assumed, has died in the Białowieża Forest, as to the estimates of the scientists conducting ForBioSensing project show. Unfortunately, the number of dead tree stands is rapidly increasing.

Environmental organizations claim that the dieback of stands is a process of a limited scale , with no significant influence on this forest complex, however it’s exaggerated in order to give the foresters a pretext for increased logging. Meanwhile, as it is evident from the estimates provided by the scientists from the Forest Research Institute, who conduct ForBioSensing project in the Forest, there are at least 8% of dead trees and their number is  increasing rapidly. Tree stands covering 7.2 thousand ha have died within five years in three forest districts in the Białowieża Forest.   

Disaster on such a scale may be ignored with a shrug of one’s shoulders as far as massive natural forest complexes are concerned, but not in the case of a small ‘island’ as the Białowieża Forest which, in addition, is vitally transformed by man.. It's hard to consider a rapid and real threat to the existence of the whole spruce species, even if it was overrepresented there, as something neutral towards the condition of Białowieża Forest and other species that live there. 

If, according to activists, the number of dead trees is negligible and in their opinion doesn't disturb the balance of the Białowieża Forest ecosystem, how come they claim at the same time that elimination of the consequences of this ‘ordinary’ spruce bark beetle gradation will be tantamount to the massive clear-cut and complete destruction of the Forest?

There is no evidence, but . . .

Eco-activists give arguments on  the natural character of subsequent bark beetle gradations in the Forest, its spontaneous die off and the lack of evidence on its effective combat However, the foresters from Białowieża say from the very beginning that the real problem is not the gradation itself but its scale: the largest since 1920s.

Tree stands covering 7.2 thousand ha have died within five years in three forest districts in Białowieża Forest.   

There are 170 pheromone insect traps in Białowieża Forest District, which is most affected by gradation. In 2015, traps were filled with 155 litres of bark beetles, in 2016 the number increased to 205 litres. And this year, during merely three days at the beginning of May,  the traps were filled with 164 litres of insect.    

Each year, in the Białowieża Forest all trees infested by bark beetle were logged, making the gradation impossible to spread. In the past, the situation was variable (in 2003-2011 the volume of spruce trees marked as infested was from1.6 to 25 thousand m3 annually), yet stable and under control. The picture in other forest districts Browsk and Hajnówka was similar.

The turnabout took place in 2012 when new forest management plan (PUL) for Białowieża forest districts was implemented. Ministry of the Environment, under pressure from non-government organizations, radically limited the number of logged trees and excluded further areas form usage. This decision made it impossible for foresters to remove appropriate number of attacked trees in order to prevent bark beetle from inhabiting still healthy trees.

In 2013, the volume of infected trees within the area of Białowieża Forest District equaled 55 thousand m3, subsequent estimates showed nearly 117 thousand m3, and in the following year almost 152 thousand m3. This precipitous increase  continues until the present day.

Despite what environmental organizations’ claim, the facts confirm that foresters were able to maintain positive balance for biodiversity in the Białowieża Forest thanks to sanitation cuttings.

Since the beginning of the massive gradation in 2012 until the end of April 2017, bark beetle attacked 834 thousand trees (about 1 million m3) in three forest districts in the Białowieża Forest. The forest management plan allowed to remove only slightly above 160 thousand trees within that period of time. Consecutive other portions of the Forest were dying not because of the sanitation cuttings inefficiency, but because of the lack of them. 

Safety first

It’s the pressure from eco-activists’ that led to foresters helplessness and outbreak of gradation. Currently, the environmental groups argue that it is too late to fight with bark beetle, therefore the Białowieża Forest has to be left to itself and all we should do is to observe ‘natural processes’. However, foresters are still legally obliged to respect  the following documents and acts: forest management plans, which are consulted with the public (unchanged since 2012 in case of Browsk and Hajnówka forest districts), , the plan of protection tasks for the Białowieża Forest Natura 2000 site, the Forest Act, which makes forest district managers responsible for entrusted them forests, numerous acts on public safety and other. What is happening in the Forest right now?

Forest districts execute Director-General’s decision No 51 of 17 February 2017 (being, on the other hand, the implementation of Minister of the Environment recommendation), by removing in the first place those dead spruces which are located by roads and trails posing a threat to tourists and increasing the risk of fires, within all tree stands regardless of age class. Occasionally, the trees of other species (f.e. damaged by bending spruces, hanging above the roads) may also be removed. Each time such trees are marked on location by foresters.

However, forest district managers can’t impose short term exclusion orders to a particular site during e.g. strong winds, instead of removing threat-posing trees – as  eco-activists demand. Firstly, such conduct will not release them form legal responsibility in case of an accident. Secondly, eco-activists’ comparisons to national parks are unreasonable  – in case of forest districts in the Białowieża Forest area, the increased risk concerns thousands of hectares within the area which is publicly accessible. Tourist traffic is not as controlled as in case of parks and notifications about closing one or two trails will not solve the problem at all.

Fallen dead wood is left in the forest. In reserves (so called UNESCO II zone) and in so called reference area foresters log only such trees which are standing dead and pose a threat to the traffic on trails and are hazardous in case of fire. However, they are still left in the forest until their natural decay. 

Szafer Reserve, located by Hajnówka-Białowieża road is the exception. Dead trees from this reserve are being removed in accordance to recommendation of Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection (previously cumulated amount of dead trees fulfils environmental needs but current surplus increases the risk of fire). In other forest stands, apart from dead trees posing threat, foresters log also infested spruces. Next, the wood is peeled or removed from the forest and transported to temporary depot or straight to its buyer, if there is one. 

In the Bavarian Forest, where the passive protection was introduced, does the forest restore itself and young generation appears? Yes, that is true, but at what cost!: mass shoot-out of deer enticed to enclosures, so that they don't graze saplings, which is hard to qualify as a ‘natural process’.       

On the other hand, in so called UNESCO IV zone, there are additional cuttings implemented as part of the silviculture and cutting treatments scheduled in forest management plan (PUL).

Chainsaw operators are now working in forest districts within the Białowieża Forest area, and additionally there are a few harvesters operating in Browsk and Hajnówka forest districts. It’s worth explaining that the use of machines enhances safety of people working in dead stands, and low pressure on ground, low noise level and fast pace of these vehicles’ work make the machines less disturbing to nature.

Plan to implement

Do the foresters log spruces other than inhabited or dead in the Białowieża Forest? Yes, they do, mainly in Browsk and Hajnówka. After all, the forest districts operate according to applicable forest management plans for years 2012-2021. For example, in  May  BrowskForest District logged, apart from the spruce, 1880 m3 of pine resulting from the removal of trees inhabited by steelblue jewel beetle and early thinning schedule. About 300 m3 of broadleaf wood came from the thinning (it was destined for local community as firewood).

In Białowieża the scale of works connected to securing the trails is so extensive that planned clearings and thinning are limited to the minimum, however, small quantities of birch, hornbeam, oak, maple, alder and aspen are still logged there. All cuttings are performed in accordance with the Plan of Protection Tasks for the Białowieża Forest Natura 2000 area; it is consistent with forest management plants for three forest districts in the Białowieża Forest.

Birds in the limelight

Recently, the topic  ‘logging during the bird breeding season’, stirs up a lot of emotion, as it is alleged to be performed illegally by the State Forests. This is particularly strongly emphasized in the context of the Białowieża Forest although it’s applicable to any woodland.

The amendment to the Forest Act of 16 December 2016 states that the forest management which is implemented in accordance with good practice requirements as a matter of principle does not violate the prohibitions concerning species protection of plants, fungi and animals, given in Articles 51 and 52 of the Nature Conservation  Act (the articles in fact allow the possibility of derogations ‘connected to sustainable forest management, if the required technology of work precludes obeying prohibitions’). Among numerous prohibitions there are: prohibitions from destroying nests, eggs, habitats, disturbance, etc. Above mentioned good practice requirements are to be determined by the Minister of the Environment, but before he does it, the Article 3 of the amendment act is still in force - it states that until 31 December 2017 forest management does not violate a.m. prohibitions, if it is implemented on the basis of plans subjected to Strategic Environmental Assessment (and forest management plans indeed are subject to such assessment).

Works in the SF are therefore performed pursuant to provisions of law, including the protection of bird species. What is more important, nothing in this matter has changed! The same derogation towards forest management was applicable since the beginning of 2017 after the amendment of 21 December 2015 to the Act on provision of information on environment and its protection. Allowed by the act derogations towards forest management in relation to specific species (apart from birds under zonal protection) were introduced earlier by the regulation of Minister of the Environment.

Concurrence of the acts, regulations of Minister of the Environment, forest management plans obligatory in forest districts and the State Forests' internal regulations (for example Forest Protection Manual) guarantees that foresters duly care for protected species, including birds. General derogation is on the other hand a rational solution: theoretically trees could be harvested only in autumn and winter. However, in reality it is hard to imagine a half year downtime in tree harvesting, because of environmental reasons (in case of Białowieża Forest, where it was necessary to immediately secure trails and implement the Plan of Protection Tasks), or economic reasons (forest industry constitutes one of the most important branches of Polish economy). It would be also unthinkable for forest districts to ask for deviation permit, that would completely paralyze the work of  the regional directorates for environmental protection.

The topic concerning the negative influence of forest works, performed in accordance with best practices, on breeding and populations of birds, does not exist in professional literature on avifauna. Even always helpful ‘American scientists’ can't be cited here. When comparing data from various sources on Sibley Guides website, it turns out that main causes of birds’ mortality in the USA are: window strikes, hunting cats, high-voltage wires and cars.

Not a single word about forest management. Scott Haulton form Division of Forestry in Indiana Department of Natural Resources (USA) found in 10 major American periodicals about birds (since the beginning of 1990s until 2008) a total of 35 scientific articles  regarding factors which influence  nest settling and rearing the brood. None of them indicated forest management although the authors conducted their research in commercial forests..

Experiment without consequences?

Will the Białowieża Forest survive when left to ‘natural processes’? Yes, but these processes won’t be entirely natural, considering the size of ecosystem influenced from far and near by people. As a result of this impact, the Forest will become homogenized and devoid of species diversity for a very long time. This scenario is supported by recent studies conducted also by, scientist from Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Forest Research Institute and the inventory, which is being carried out since 2016 by the SF. Moreover, the Forest’s age structure will become seriously unbalanced: it’s going to be an old-grow forest providing good conditions for species depending on dead wood until… there is no more ‘fresh’ dead wood.

Does the frequently mentioned Bavarian Forest, where the passive protection was introduced, restore itself and does the young generation appears there? That is true, but at what cost – one of the examples is the mass shoot-out of deer enticed to enclosures, so that they don’t graze saplings, which is hard to qualify as a ‘natural process’.       

If we leave the Białowieża Forest to itself with thousands hectares of dead tree stands, will it  attract tourists (not a handful of scientists and eco-activists) and allow local citizens to make money? It’s possible, provided we invest millions in not entirely ‘natural’, contemporary attractions in order to attract people and convince them that dead spruce trees are worth seeing despite of increased safety risk. Is it possible to transform entire Polish side of the Białowieża Forest into a national park? Yes, it is possible. However, will the government agree to burden the budget, will local authorities accept that, will tourists accept restricted access to some parts of the Forest?

There are various possible solutions for the Białowieża Forest, however, how will the consequences influence the forest, local citizens, who in going to implement the solution and who is going to pay for this – this is the other less attractive side of the coin, not mentioned by eco-activists, not asked by the media and therefore Everyman doesn’t even question it.