EU Court Rules Against Polish Logging of Protected Forest
The European Court of Justice has ruled that Poland violated European Union regulations regarding logging and environmental protection when the country allowed an increase of logging activities in the Bialowieza Forest.
The ruling is a defeat for the country’s national conservative Law and Justice-led government, which had originally encouraged logging in the forest.
The Bialowieza Forest is one of the European continent’s largest and last remaining primeval forest. It stretches over more than 3000 square kilometers (about 1200 square miles) and is home to about 800 European bisons, the largest population of the endangered species.
The forest had been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site first in 1979 and had its status extended in 1992 and 2014; it was designated as a “Special Area of Conservation” by the European Union as part of the latter’s Natura 2000 program.
Despite the protection by the EU, the Natura 2000 program was set up as a directive, which allows member states to create their own laws in order achieve the union-wide goals. The Polish government had previously only designated about 17% of the forest as a logging-free national park.
Environmental groups estimate that between 10,000 to 100,000 trees have been logged since the former environment minister, Jan Szyzko, allowed logging limits to triple. The government had previously justified the increased logging as a way to counter the spread of the spruce bark beetle, an argument that the European Court of Justice did not find convincing as even government documents pointed out logging as the primary threat to the Bialowieza Forest.
The court also ruled that unless the logging activities stop, an initial fine of €4.3 million and a daily fine of €100,000 would be levied against the Polish government.
The Polish government, led by new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, announced that they would respect the ruling of the court and begin discussions with the European Commission on implementing new rules regarding logging and environmental protection.
The tangling between the Polish government and the European Union over the future of the Bialowieza Forest is part of a larger standoff between the two sides, including disputes over the Polish government’s refusal to take in migrants and its judicial reforms that the EU sees as a violation of judicial independence.
Morawiecki was appointed as the prime minister by the Law and Justice party due to his more moderate stances compared to his predecessor, Beata Syzdlo. The new prime minister had dismissed the previous environment minister responsible for the increased logging limits in January and is trying to position the country for new negotiations with the EU on the latter’s development budget, which Poland is the largest beneficiary of.