Scars of the Primeval Forest

If all trees felled in the Bialowieza Primeval Forest in 2017 were loaded onto lined up lorries, it would create a convoy of vehicles stretching from London to Cambridge

- The year 2017 will be one of the darkest in the history of not only the Forest, but also Poland. For the first time since 1989, that is since Poland regained independence, it is ruled by people who have wrought unprecedented destruction in this unique forest – says Adam Wajrak, a journalist and ecologist, resident of the Białowieża Forest.

Wajrak added that, unlike their predecessors, who - regardless of their political complexion - tried to protect the Forest a little better, they took away this protection. – They took it away and wrought barbaric damage. The State Forests and the Ministry of the Environment, run by Jan Szyszko, are responsible for this. (“Szyszka” is the Polish word for a conifer cone).
There are different ways to describe what happened between the spring and late autumn of 2017. One can give the figures.

Some 190,000 cubic metres of wood was felled in the forest. That's about 160,000 to 180,000 trees.

Environmental campaigners estimate it as being some 6,000 lorries, filled to capacity with the trunks of forest trees.

Tree-felling on this scale has not been seen here since 1988

Timber cut in the Białowieża Forest in cubic metres in 1987-2017. Data from forest inspectorates collected by environmental organizations

Adam Wajrak

Spectacular devastation is not all. Walking through the Forest, I came across groups or single stumps of great spruces. Each of these trees could provide food and shelter many forest creatures. Each could be a separate planet in the primeval galaxy. But they are gone. Taken to sawmills.

What really happened in the Forest? How many trees were cut down?

Under the pretext of combatting woodworm, Jan Szyszko and the State Forests allowed heavy equipment to go into the Forest. Data collected from forest inspectorates by environmental activists have allowed us to carry out the kind of analysis which was not yet been done in the Polish media. “The wood that was cut went to private companies for substantial amounts of money”.

The map of logging

In the first map, the forest plots where the logging was carried out are marked in red while the reserves and the Białowieża National Park are marked in green. Obviously, not all of the places marked have been completely stripped. The second version of the map shows how many cubic meters of timber were cut down on each plot. The third map shows places where foresters violated UNESCO-protected area. It also shows Natura 2000 sites, where trees over 100 years old once stood. The European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union stood in their defence.

How did the foresters operate?

"Areas with logging" does not mean that there are empty fields left. The forest is divided into plots and the forest inspectorates give the amount of wood taken from a particular area. One such plot, located near the road, is Hajnówka-Białowieża, shown below on an bigger scale. It is difficult to estimate its surface area, the hard data is the amount of timber that has been felled.

See how the Białowieża Forest
has been destroyed

We have selected a few typical places that accurately reflect what was happening in the Forest. Krzysztof Cibor from Greenpeace Poland and Adam Bohdan from Dzikiej Polski (Wild Poland) helped us identify them. In addition to the areas stripped of vegetation, which can even be seen from space, Adam Wajrak will also talk about smaller places, which until recently were home to rare species of birds or plants.
Adam Wajrak:
- Numbers, cubic metres or hectares will not tell us everything. To understand, you need to look at specific places. To the north of our house, near Tryb Grubolipny and Wilcza, there was a beautiful, old, centenarian forest which had self-seeded. Dying and dead, big spruces, soaring oaks and bent hornbeams formed an extraordinary biocenosis. I could easily encounter an extremely rare three-toed woodpecker here.

Today, many fragments of this beautiful forest are gone. They were crushed by heavy machines called harvesters. Working in tandem with forwarders, they can cut up to 200 trees a day. There were as many as five such sinister pairs working in the forest. Although only dry spruces were cut, the young generation of the species growing between them, young hornbeams, maples, as well as tiny oaks, were crushed in the process.

Natural renewal will not be seen here for very long. The process requires many dead trees, which are not only a protection against browsing by herbivores, but are also a foundation on which a new generation grows. If there are artificial plantings here, then we can say goodbye to the real Forest in these places.

Many of the soaring oaks immediately fell over without the cover that dry spruces gave them. The paths that I used to walk were turned into crazy, muddy obstacle courses, where one must be careful not to fall into ruts a meter or more deep. The homes of owls, three-toed and white-beaked woodpeckers and white-necked flycatchers, species protected by EU law, were destroyed. The destruction also impacted smaller organisms. Only in the Białowieża Forest, were the trees killed by bark beetles home to more than 100 rare and endangered beetle species, such as a squirrel's root, cinnabar crush, and the Pytho kolwensis - which is unique to the Białowieża Forest in Poland, as well as Boros schneideri.

The swathes cut through will also affect those parts that survived. The forest edge effect will kick in, the microclimate will change. Many species associated with the deep forest will lose their habitat and will have to move further away from the new edge.
This is one of the areas most denuded by felling, south of Białowieża. In a strip nearly one kilometre long, almost 6,000 cubic metres of timber has been cut. To show the scale of destruction, we compare satellite images from 2016 and 2018.
A plot located near the village of Czerlonka, in an area protected by UNESCO, where 1,300 cubic metres of wood were cut down. Dramatic scenes took place here. Ecologists blocked heavy equipment. The police handled them brutally and accused of "making work impossible" for a forestry company. In January, a court found that they had acted on a higher necessity and acquitted them.
The place shown here was first cut back to the ground, and now the foresters have surrounded it with a fence and planted small trees in rows, supporting them with poles. According to scientists, this is a mistake. Artificial afforestation of the area following last year's logging is damaging to nature and will intensify the conflict between Poland and the European Commission - environmentalists give warning .

What happened by Wilcza Tryba?
The landscape after the battle

This is a film made by activists at Wilczy Tryb, north of Teremiski. This is one of the best documented sectors . Ecologists have published a report emphasising the devastation of this valuable natural area (trees which had stood for over 100 years were felled, as were the habitats of rare birds and beetles) and the violation of the provisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union in this area. The State Forests have presented their version of the felling issue.
On May 30, one of the many blockades of felling machines took place in the Browsk Forest. Heavy machines for felling and loading up trees were surrounded by activists. Several people attached themselves to the harvester. They protested against the felling carried out during the birds’ breeding season. "The place where we stopped the felling is the home of the three-toed woodpecker and pygmy owl. Cutting down trees and destroying their nesting area with heavy equipment is just mean" they said . See how it looked from the drone.

What came next?

At the end of July 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered the immediate cessation of logging in the most precious sites in the Forest. But the Polish government did not listen. Minister Szyszko argued that the forest must be protected from woodworm. The Tribunal did not believe this and in November threatened that if Poland failed to comply with the ban it would be fined at least EUR 100,000 per day. The financial argument worked - the harvesters left the Forest, although some logging continued.

Minister Jan Szyszko was removed, replaced by Henryk Kowalczyk and the foresters eagerly began to re-plant the forest. There are more and more places where saplings have been planted in rows. Ecologists argue that this is a mistake. – The forest can manage by itself – argues Wajrak. –The great areas of forest cut down by the Germans in the First World War or by the English company that leased it in the 1920s, have re-afforested by themselves and are today one of the most valuable in the Forest – he says.

Take a walk in the Forest

Moving over the enlarged map, you can see what has been happening in the forest and why so many people fought for it. We also have some surprises for you, which confirm that the Białowieża Forest is an extraordinary place worth protecting.

How to visit the Forest with us

On the interactive map below, you can see the whole Forest. It is the Białowieża National Park and the Hajnówka, Browsk and Białowieża Forest Districts. Its area consists of small forest plots of various shapes used by the State Forests. Their borders are marked with blue lines. Plots of land that were felled in 2017 (regardless of their size) are marked in colours. Blue is for plots where the logging was carried out without violating UNESCO or Nature2000 regulations. Red marks those that were cut against the regulations. Flashing orange points mark places where something happened that we want to tell you about. These places saw felling on a spectacular scale, and are at the same time locations with interesting stories about the Forest and its inhabitants. To see what we want to show you, hover over each of these places with the cursor (or tap on them if you're using a mobile device).

A mini-map located in the upper left corner will help you find your way in the forest thicket. Enjoy your tour!


This material could not have been created without the help of many people in collecting and compiling the data. Special thanks go to Krzysztof Cibor, Marta Grundland and Andrzej Szkodzin from Greenpeace Poland, Adam Bohdan from the Dzika Polska foundation and activists from Obóz Dla Puszczy.
The material (graphics, programming, text) was prepared by a team consisting of:
Katarzyna Korzeniowska, Danuta Pawłowska, Jarosław Kopeć, Vadim Makarenko, Mikołaj Mierzejewski, Rafał Ochota, Dominik Uhlig, Adam Wajrak.
Photos and films:
Europejska Agencja Kosmiczna, Agencja Gazeta, Greenpeace, Dzika Polska, Obóz dla Puszczy, Mapy Google.