The forest management operations concerning the Puszcza Białowieska Natura 2000 site that have been undertaken by Poland infringe EU law, said today the EU Court of justice.
In February already,the court’s advocate general Yves Bot had backed the European Commission saying that forestry management decisions made by Poland concerning the Natura 2000 Puszcza Białowieska site violate EU laws.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bialowieza, which straddles the border with Belarus, is one of Europe’s last primaeval forests and home to its largest herd of the nearly extinct European bison.
Under the EU’s Habitat Directive, member states must take appropriate conservation measures for special areas.
In today’s judgment, the Court declares that Poland has failed to fulfil its obligations arising from EU directives.
The Polish government has said cutting down trees there was necessary to make forest paths safe for hikers and protect existing trees from a bark beetle infestation.
Environmental protection activists and EU experts say the large-scale felling of trees destroys rare animal habitats and plants, in violation of regulations. They held protests and brought the case before the court last year.
Logging quotas to 2021 had already been reached and in one part of the forest an expanded quota declared illegal by the European Commission, had been more than half fulfilled despite an injunction, official forestry data shows.
The standoff over the forest is one of several flashpoints between Warsaw and Brussels that include pan-European migration quotas and judicial reform plans.
At stake is not only the unique biodiversity of the woodland but also, some lawyers and environmentalists say, the future of European institutions and the rule of law.
For sanitary reasons, the Polish Minister for the Environment authorised in 2016, for the period from 2012 to 2021, almost a tripling of harvesting of wood in the Białowieża forest district alone, and the carrying out of active forest management operations such as sanitary pruning, reforestation and restoration, in areas where any intervention was previously excluded.
In 2017 the Commission brought an action against Poland, pretending that it failed to fulfil its obligations under the Habitats Directive6 and the Birds Directive.
As an interim measure, the ECJ said last year Poland would be fined 100,000 euros per day if it did not stop large-scale logging in the forest.