In an ancient forest in eastern Europe, wolves, bison and lynx roam, while fungi and insects thrive in a conserved wonderland at the center of controversy.
By Sue Landau
To reach Europe’s last lowland wilderness, go east. Bialowieza Forest, about 250 km east of Warsaw, is all that remains of the mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland that once covered the continent’s plains.
The forest has been in the news of late because of a clash between Poland and the European Union over logging quotas — even though it is a protected area, some logging is allowed. It is a complex dispute that pits conservationists against a forestry lobby.
Bialowieza (pronounced “Biaowveyja”) Forest survived the mass clearings that ravaged European forests after the Middle Ages only because Poland’s kings, then Russia’s Tsars reserved it as their royal hunting ground.
So it had little exposure to intensive human land-use until German occupation in World War One, when commercial forestry was introduced and its bison were hunted to extinction.
After the war, a sixth of the forest in Poland — some 100 square kilometers — was set aside as a national park with a core reserve. Following both wars, logging and hunting restrictions were introduced for forest zones outside the park.
To grasp how little ancient woodland remains in Europe, compare this forest, spanning 1,500 sq km across the Poland-Belarus border, with the Pacific Coast Forest that covers 60,400 sq km from Alaska to Northern California.
Bialowieza Forest is prized for its aged trees and variety of tree species. It is home to wolves, deer, elk and lynx, which mostly make themselves scarce — there are only five or six lynx in the Polish forest. Bison were re-introduced after the wars.
But for biologists, the critical biodiversity is the abundance of fungi and insects, which live with the trees in a balance between symbiosis and predatory attack. The insects support a unique variety of birds.
To keep it pristine, the national park can only be visited on small, organized excursions with a forest guide. I was there on a short private trip in mid-January. I discovered a magical world where different methods — forestry or conservation — yield very different results.
With thanks to forest guide Andrzej Petryna, Bogdan Jaroszewicz of the University of Warsaw’s Bialowieza Botanical Station and Eva Kaluzynska, who organized the trip.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.