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Is this the end of the road for ‘Europe’s Yellowstone’?

May 8, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

One of the greatest natural wonders of Europe, a vast primeval forest where European bison graze and countless bird species thrive, is being devastated by logging despite UNESCO World Heritage listing and enormous potential for sustainable tourism.

Białowieża Forest is sometimes called Europe’s Yellowstone, a reference to America’s Yellowstone National Park.

The forest lies largely in Poland and that’s where its destruction is rife. Just last weekend, in a savage irony, Poland hosted the United Nations Third International Congress on Ethics and Tourism. Delegates at the congress in Krakow discussed “ways to advance the commitment of tourism towards sustainable and responsible practices”.

A European bison at rest in Białowieża Forest

There is little sign of sustainable and responsible practices in Białowieża Forest, which is home to 20,000 animal species, including 250 types of bird and hundreds of European bison. Fir trees towering 50 metres high and oaks and ashes of 40 metres flourish there – or at least, they have so far. In Belarus the entire forest is protected as a nature park, but only part of the Polish section is protected.

Poland’s head of conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland), Jarosław Krogulec, is alerting the world to the tragic results of devastation in the Polish section of the forest, which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus.

The forest, in Krogulec’s words, is “a living, breathing relic of antiquity – the largest surviving remnant of the vast primeval forest that once swathed the Great European Plain in a sea of lush greenness from the Atlantic to the Urals”.

Białowieża Forest is the best-preserved forest ecosystem in all Europe. It is Europe’s last deciduous, old-growth forest.

An untouched part of Białowieża Forest in Poland

“It is a haven for biodiversity – unparalleled on this continent – hosting a rich panoply of fauna and flora, notably including Europe’s largest bison population,” Krogulec says. Many people have no idea that bison even exist in Europe.

Krogulec says the scale of man-made devastation from logging in recent years has been spine-chilling.

“Effectively, we are in a state of ecological emergency.

“Vast stretches of this once magical forest resemble a natural disaster zone – but there is nothing ‘natural’ about this. This is human vandalism.”

This video clip gives some idea:

Krogulec writes: “In some areas, it seems like nothing has been considered too ecologically important to escape the executioner’s chainsaw. At one spot, a majestic 150-year-old giant spruce has been recently reduced to a stump.”

OTOP (BirdLife Poland) is doing everything it can to stop the devastation. You can read Krogulec’s account here.

Polish environmentalists say that logging is threatening species of rare birds, such as the white-backed woodpecker, which lost 30% of its population in forestry-managed areas in the 1990s and 2000s.

Wikipedia notes that Białowieża Forest is “one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The forest is home to 800 European bison, Europe’s heaviest land animal.

“Guided tours into the strictly protected areas of the park can be arranged on foot, bike or by horse-drawn carriage. Approximately 120,000-150,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the forest annually (about 10,000 of them are from other countries).

“Among the attractions are bird-watching with local ornithologists, the chance to observe rare birds, pygmy owl observations, watching bison in their natural environment, and sledge as well as carriage rides, with a bonfire. Expert nature guides can also be found in the nearby urban centres. Tours are possible all year round.”

Judging by the alert from BirdLife Poland and other conservation groups, all of this is under severe threat.

Written by Peter Needham

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