By Marcello Rossi
BIALOWIEZA, Poland, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's a grey, overcast day in late February, and the town of Białowieża, a small settlement in northeastern Poland, looks undisturbed – almost uninhabited.
But until a few weeks ago, it wasn't unusual to see protests here featuring banner-wielding demonstrators and government officials arriving in black sedans, escorted by the police.
At issue is a series of large-scale logging operations in the nearby forest, which shares a name with the town. Białowieża, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest remaining part of the primeval forest that once stretched across much of Europe.
Besides causing rifts in the local community, the dispute over the forest has put further strain on the relationship between the nation's right-wing government and the European Union, leading to a legal battle that is still continuing.
In late February, the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice said Poland had infringed EU laws by increasing logging in the Białowieża forest over the previous two years.
The opinion is not binding, and the European Court will make a final ruling in the coming months.
Poland, which defied two previous orders to halt logging in the forest, has said it will comply with the EU's final ruling.
Opponents of logging have welcomed the government's statement as a vindication of their efforts, but many believe the forest is still in danger.
"This government is not to be trusted," said Adam Bohdan, a biologist with the Wild Poland Foundation in Warsaw, during a visit to several logging sites.
Pointing to a heavily deforested area near the village of Czerlonka, he said, "The major concern is that this can happen again in the future unless some measures to enhance the protection of the forest are taken."
Unlike the portion of the forest across the border in Belarus, which is entirely protected by UNESCO, the Polish forest is split into a natural park reserve and a commercial forest.
The commercial side is managed by State Forests, a government body that runs Polish forests and controls almost the entire national timber market, generating raw material worth over 10 billion euros ($12 billion) annually.
"State Forests are requested to be financially (self)-sufficient," said Bodhan. That means they care less about trees and biodiversity, he said, and more about "earning more money. And the Białowieża forest has a plentiful supply of valuable wood."
State Forests officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Logging is only prohibited inside the reserve, a protected area that contains woodland largely untouched by people for thousands of years. But the reserve accounts for just 17 percent of the total forest area of 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres), leaving the remainder vulnerable.
Borders are not always clear, causing quarrels over how far into the forest harvesters can go.
In January, State Forests said that two out of the forest's three administrative units had already felled 98 percent of the timber quota set until 2021, and that they were planning to increase their quotas.
The announcement alarmed environmentalists, since the current dispute erupted when the government tripled logging limits in one of the administrative units in 2016, saying the forest was in danger due to an outbreak of bark beetle.
"The best solution to prevent large-scale logging from happening again in the future is the simplest one with the longest history of political opposition: expanding the national park over more of the forest," said Eunice Blavascunas, a cultural anthropologist at Whitman College in the United States.
"This is far from being an easy task," said Blavascunas, who has studied conservation politics in new nature preserves in Poland for more than 15 years.
Although it constitutes a tiny proportion of all Polish forests, the Białowieża forest holds a highly symbolic place in the national consciousness.
"The Białowieża forest is unlike any other for Poles," said Bogdan Jarosewicz, the director of Białowieża Geobotanical Station at Warsaw University.
"It's a national emblem, and it's unlikely that a nationalist government relentlessly appealing to national identity will give up on that."
In any case, foresters and hunters are a key part of the ruling party's electoral support, and many of them are part of the entrenched local opposition to enlarging the national reserve, added Jarosewicz.
"Many people here have worked as foresters for generations or have relatives who (did), and they are staunchly convinced that there is no harm in exploiting the forest in the way they have for hundreds of years," he said.
BUY NEW LAND?
Driving through the maze of roads within the forest, peoples' visceral connection to the woods is evident. Woodpiles stand by timber homes in the villages, and the smell of wood smoke drifts in even the remotest places.
Residents can be blunt in their views.
"Poland has the right to use its own resources as it sees fit, without a bunch of highly paid bureaucrats to set the agenda," said Elżbieta Laprus, president of Białowieża's village council.
Bogdan Brzeziecki, a forestry scientist working for the department of silviculture of Warsaw University of Life Sciences, also thinks that expanding the preserve is not the answer.
"In the case of Białowieża we should find a compromise between strict protection and a multifunctional forest management model," he said. "We'd need such a model for every forest in Poland."
Several attempts to enlarge the forest preserve have been made over the past two decades, but none has succeeded – and the divide between those who support a managed forest and those who believe it should be left alone doesn't appear to be closing.
A 2014 study by Polish and Swedish scientists blamed a lack of clear information for local residents and a lack of transparent decision-making for the failure to reach a concensus.
"Future enlargement initiatives should be developed in cooperation with local people and accompanied by an appropriate information campaign to be effective," said Grzegorz Mikusinski, a co-author of the study from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Blavascunas, the anthropologist, sees one potential solution. If the government were to buy abandoned farmland on the outskirts of the forest and plant trees there, a larger core of the ancient forest could be preserved, she said.
"This could be an incremental process that gradually eases social tensions, and replaces conservation zones with marketable trees," she said.
"But it takes political will to make this happen, and I'm not sure Poland has plenty of it right now."
(Reporting by Marcello Rossi ; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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