Poland finally decided to halt logging in the ancient Bialowieza forest, as demanded by the European Union. But Warsaw did not announce how many trees it had already chopped down.
Official forestry data shows that logging quotas to 2021 had already been reached and in one part of the forest an expanded quota, declared illegal by the European Commission, had been more than half fulfilled despite an injunction.
As reported by the Reuters news agency, the state-run body in charge of harvesting timber and protecting woodland, also confirmed that the forest’s two remaining administrative units were aiming to increase the quota of wood that they can harvest by 2021.
The woodland, a Unesco World Heritage site that is home to the largest roaming population of European bison and some of the continent’s oldest trees, is emblematic of the rift between the EU executive and the nationalist party ruling Poland since 2015.
At the beginning of this year, Warsaw said it had complied with an order from the European Court of Justice, first issued in July, to stop logging in Bialowieza, setting a new tone the ruling Law and Justice party wants Brussels to match.
According to Reuters, however, environmentalists said the announcement came too late to prevent irreparable damage, albeit to a limited area.
The European Court of Justice ordered a halt to logging in July last year while it looked into the Commission’s case that the sharp increase in the logging target for the southeastern Bialowieza Forest section broke European environment law.
Warsaw refused to comply and four months later, the court threatened to fine Poland more than €100,000 for each day it felled trees for sale.
It was the first time an EU state had publicly said it would ignore an order of the court, said Laurent Pech, professor of European Law at Middlesex University London, calling it “a direct threat to the very functioning of the EU legal order”.
State Forests told Reuters only dead or weakened trees were removed after the European Court of Justice’s order to protect local mushroom pickers and the 150,000 tourists drawn to the forest each year.
The court ban allowed for such trees to be felled, but activists say many of those actually cut down posed no danger and should anyway have been left in place rather than sold.
“Removal of such trees results in an irreversible habitat loss for dependent species,” said Grzegorz Mikusinski, associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
“We would have to wait 200 years to see something similar to what we had before spruces were cut and removed.”
Meanwhile, a source at the European Commission told Reuters that it would continue to monitor the situation, based on information from civil society groups and the government, which sent in report in late January on how it was complying with the order.