Poland violated European Union law by allowing widespread logging in protected areas of the ancient Białowieża forest, Europe’s highest court ruled today. The declaration settles a long-standing dispute.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) in Luxembourg followed the legal opinion of its advocate-general, who said in February that Poland had breached EU law by failing to adequately protect one of Europe’s last primeval woodlands. The court’s final judgement, released on 17 April, comes into force with immediate effect. It requires the Polish government to reverse decisions that allowed logging in parts of the forest that were strictly protected from logging until 2016. Poland has previously indicated that it will comply with any decision handed to it by the ECJ.
“This is a huge victory for all defenders of Białowieża Forest,” says James Thornton, the London-based chief executive of ClientEarth, an international group of environmental lawyers. “Hundreds of people were heavily engaged in saving this unique woodland from unthinkable destruction.”
The Białowieża forest, which is protected under EU wildlife laws, is home to the largest roaming population of European bison (Bison bonasus), as well as a variety of rare trees, birds and insects. In 2016, Polish authorities nearly tripled the amount of logging permitted there, to fight what it said was a pest outbreak in the forest. The move prompted an outcry from scientists and environmentalists. ClientEarth, together with six other organizations, filed a complaint to the European Commission — the EU’s executive body — which referred the case to the ECJ.
In July 2017, the court issued an interim order to halt tree-felling in strictly protected forest patches. But logging continued throughout the summer and autumn, despite fierce protests.
Polish forest authorities suspended tree-felling by heavy machinery in November last year, after the court said that it would impose a penalty of €100,000 (US$124,000) a day if Poland failed to comply with its interim order. Poland’s then-environment minister Jan Szyszko, who had ordered the drastic increase in logging, was dismissed as part of a government reshuffle in December. His successor, Henryk Kowalczyk, said soon after his inauguration in January that he intends to respect any decision by the ECJ on forest management.
“I’m happy and relieved that the court listened more to science than to local authorities,” says Wolfgang Weisser, an ecologist at the Technical University of Munich in Freising, Germany. “Experts have always made the case that taking out infected trees will not benefit biodiversity, nor save the forest from harm.”
But Thornton cautions that the fight for preserving the Białowieża forest is not over. “We need to see concrete action,” he says. “The minister must now speedily reverse the decisions that allowed logging.”
Poland risks incurring a minimum fine of €4.3 million if it fails to comply with the ruling, which it cannot appeal.