Poland violated European Union law by increasing logging in the protected Białowieża forest, according to European Court of Justice Advocate General Yves Bot in an opinion released on February 20.
The Białowieża forest is what remains of the immense primeval forest that once extended across the European Plain. The forest provides a habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, including Europe’s largest population of roaming bison. Białowieża, which contains some of Europe’s oldest living trees, is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected site under the EU’s Natura 2000 program.
In 2016, Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko authorized a nearly three-fold increase in logging in the Białowieża forest. The Polish government said the increase was necessary in order to combat a bark beetle infestation and to make hiking paths safer for the public. According to data from State Forests, the government organization that oversees the logging, two of the forest’s three administrative districts have already met 98 percent of the timber harvesting quotas put in place for 2012-2021. The forest’s third district in the southeast has gone beyond the original 2012-2021 quota and has already reached 55 percent of an increased quota.
In July 2017, the European Court of Justice ordered the suspension of logging while it investigated the European Commission’s claim that the expanded quota in the southeastern district of the forest violated European law. The Polish government ignored the order until November 2017 when the European Court of Justice threatened a fine of €100,000 ($122,200) for every day that the logging continued.
In his opinion on February 20, Bot stated that Poland has “failed to fulfill its obligations” in accordance with the European Union’s Habitats and Birds Directives. Additionally, in reference to the increased logging, Bot said, “Those decisions are necessarily liable to result in a deterioration of the breeding sites of the protected species.”
In response to Bot’s decision, recently-appointed Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk said, “We will analyze the advocate general’s opinion closely but what I can say now is that Poland will respect the definitive judgement of the court on the Białowieża forest.” Although Bot’s opinion is non-binding, the European Court of Justice tends to follow his legal recommendations. The court is expected to make its final ruling in April.