Poland broke law with logging in ancient forest, top EU court says

Logged stubs and trees are seen at one of the last primeval forests in Europe, Bialowieza forest, near Bialowieza village
FILE PHOTO: Logged stubs and trees are seen at one of the last primeval forests in Europe, Bialowieza forest, near Bialowieza village, Poland February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

April 17, 2018

By Gabriela Baczynska

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – The European Union’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that Poland broke environmental laws with large-scale logging in the ancient Bialowieza forest, one of a raft of flashpoint issues between the eurosceptic Polish government and the bloc.

In a final ruling in Luxembourg, judge Marek Safjan of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said the logging in Bialowieza, a World Heritage site and home to the rare European bison, had endangered many birds and insects.

For months, Poland ignored environmentalists’ protests and an ECJ order last July to stop logging immediately, further fuelling concerns that it was backpedaling on democratic standards under the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Warsaw said earlier this year it had stopped the logging, part of a broader campaign to improve ties with the EU after two years of bitter feuds – including on judicial independence and migration – since PiS won power in 2015.

Environment minister Jan Szyszko, who was responsible for the increased logging quotas, has since been dismissed, and the ministry said on Tuesday that it would respect the ruling.

“Poland will observe the ruling,” the current Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk said in a statement.

The ministry added it would send the EU’s executive new proposals for on a possible protection plan for the forest.

“We still need to stand up for the Bialowieza forest in Poland and abroad,” said environmental group Greenpeace. “The Polish state’s holding company still sees a cash-grab instead of a delicate old-growth forest.”

Back in 2016, Poland had tripled logging quotas and said spruce and pine trees that were more than 100 years old had to be felled because of a beetle infestation. The ECJ said on Tuesday that was not justified.

While the case has since lost some of its political prominence amid a push for a deal between Warsaw and the bloc in the broader dispute over the rule of law, environmental groups say damage has already been done to the delicate habitat.

Logging quotas to 2021 had already been reached and in one part of the forest an expanded quota, declared illegal by the bloc’s executive European Commission, had been more than half fulfilled.

“The decisions that allowed logging must be withdrawn. Then, the Polish government should also consider enlarging the national park,” said James Thornton, head of the environmental campaign group ClientEarth.

“This is the only way to guarantee that devastation of the forest will not happen again.”

(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Richard Balmforth)

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