The foresters to ensure safety in the Białowieża Forest

The Directorate-General of the State Forests has approved the necessary sanitation cuttings in the Białowieża Forest Districts.

The Directorate-General of the State Forests has approved the necessary sanitation cuttings in the Białowieża Forest Districts.

Only the trees posing threat to people’s safety or those excessively rising fire hazard, located alongside the public and forest roads, especially near fire breaks, but also the trees by tourist trails and in the immediate surroundings of the rest areas like forest parking lots or sheds will be subject to the cuttings .The treatments constituting the plan of protection tasks for the Białowieża Forests Natura 2000 site, which is currently applied in all Białowieża forest districts, will be implemented in the first place.

More than one thousand kilometers

According to the Forest Act and other obligatory regulations, it is the forest district manager who is responsible for both the condition of forests being under his administrative supervision and the public safety there. The incoming peak of the holiday season bringing about major fire hazard means an uncommon threat to the forest stands overgrowing the area of three State Forests Districts in the Białowieża Forest, namely Białowieża, Browsk and Hajnówka covering the area of 52.6 thousand hectares.

As a result of the spruce bark beetle gradation, which has been lasting uncontrolled for several years as a result of the restrictions imposed on forest management plans scheduled for the primeval forest districts, there are hundreds of thousands of dead trees in this very area. According to the scientists, the dead wood is bound to fall or break over the next 5 or 10 years, posing a considerable threat to people visiting the Białowieża Forest. Such massive concentration of dead wood makes the fire risk grow radically, especially near the traffic routes. During a few last months the cases of dead trees fallen onto the tourist trails or forest roads have been reported; several times they missed the passing cars or people only by a hair’s breadth. Such incidents should seriously be taken into account also in a live and healthy forest, however the risk there is minimal, while the condition of the Białowieża Forests seems to be unprecedented and the scale of the threat is incomparable.


By the Narewka-Białowieża road, photograph by Andrzej Chrenowski

As it is evident from the report study compiled by the Bureau of Forest Management and Geodesy, at the end of 2015 in three primeval forest districts there was spruce deadwood alongside all traffic routes (the trees infested by the bark beetle that soon will be dead, and also those already dead and therefore left by the insect) of combined estimated volume 870 thousand m3. This can be depicted by the image of a wood stack: if it were made of the same amount of timber, it would be more than one thousand kilometers long. Additionally, the biomass of the infested and dead spruce located by the tourist trails in the forests of the Białowieża, Browsk and Hajnówka Forest Districts alone has been estimated at almost 270 thousand m3. And that’s not all, as there are many more dead trees other than spruce, that have fallen prey to various pests or a drought.

Safety versus public access

Taking into account full information on the subject, the forest district managers are obliged to act in compliance with the law, therefore they should either ban the access to the most dangerous areas or remove the trees creating the greatest hazard to safety. In practice, since the Białowieża Forest District is the most affected by the problem of decomposing forest stands, this would lead to the official ban on entering forest recesses which are the most popular among local people and the visitors (95 thousand m3 of dead spruce alongside the tourist trails alone). The scale of potential threat is depicted by the data provided by the latest aerial laser scanning, conducted in July 2015 by the Forest Research Institute scientists and within the framework of the ongoing project LIFE+ ForBioSensing PL (the red spots show larger groups of dead trees of considerable height and standing alongside the traffic routes; they may fall down onto the road or path). Subsequent photographs and measurements are scheduled to be made in June.

The forest roads and trails in the primeval forest districts are used every day both by the local residents and by lots of tourist. Obviously, the official ban on entering the forest is always unpopular so it is used as the last resort. However, in order to ensure safety to people who visit the Białowieża Forest, the foresters remove the dead trees which are very likely to create the greatest risk. This, in turn, inevitably means sanitation cuttings and leaving the majority of felled trees in site until they decompose naturally. Such actions diminishing the risk of a tragic accident to the lowest level are taken in the belt of the road from Hajnówka to Białowieża, in the Landscape Forest Reserve named after Władysław Szafer – as agreed with: the Regional Directorate of Nature Conservation in Białystok, the District Commander of the National Fire Brigade, and the District Roads Authority in Hajnówka.

There is none and won’t be any alleged ‘the primeval forest clear-cuts’

An opinion spread by some media or the NGOs about ‘the Białowieża Forest clear-cut’ is absolutely false.

First of all, the Białowieża National Park (10.5 thousand hectares), which protects the most nature valued parts of the primeval forest is restricted from the State Forests activities. Secondly, each of the three State Forests Districts administering the remaining part of the primeval forest, i.e. outside the boundaries of the national park and within the territory of Poland, acts according to the operative forest management plan for the years 2012-2021, the plan of protection tasks for the Białowieża Primeval Forest Natura 2000 site PLC200004 of November 6, 2015 (concerning all forest districts in the Białowieża Forest), and additionally the Białowieża and Browsk Forest Districts are obliged to act in compliance with the decision of the Director-General of the SF, dated March 31 2016, demarking reference areas within their territories.

The overlapping protection regimes are the reason why up to 65.5% of the primeval forest districts are utterly excluded from the forest use, or are used at the lowest possible level (there are almost 10.2 thousand forest separations in the Białowieża, Browsk and Hajnówka Forest Districts, of a combined area 34.5 thousand hectares, which are eligible to at least one of the following criteria: they are located within the area of a nature reserve, in a reference area, on a moist site, the tree stand growing there is older than one hundred years – while the exclusions or considerable restrictions are obligatory in the whole area). The plan of protection tasks for the Natura 2000 site that has been implemented by the Regional Directorate of the State Forests in Białystok being obligatory in the three primeval forest districts seems to be of key importance. According to its assumptions, the foresters should undertake many activities relevant to active nature protection in order to preserve nature valued sites (such treatments are also applied in the national parks). For example, they should log selected trees, which slow down natural regeneration or are the incubator of dangerous pests or diseases; they should control or combat alien invasive species which threaten protected species; and finally, they should remove bushes or mow selected mid-forest clearings or meadows, etc.

In case of the Białowieża Forest District, the annex to the forest management plan approved by the Minister of the Environment on March 25, 2016 returned to this forest unit’s prerogatives the previously lost possibility to further act in the field of active nature protection, which is to execute the existing law (the amount of potential timber harvest in this area has been increased to not more than 188 thousand m3 during 10 years, which, in practice, equals about 120 thousand m3 left to be used during the five and a half years of the current operative plan). At present the Białowieża Forest District focuses on sanitation cuttings which are necessary to ensure public safety there, so the foresters remove trees hazardous to the safety of the people which are standing alongside traffic and tourist routes (especially if such trees limit the mobility of fire roads), around resting areas or forest parking lots.