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The promise of better times for Białowieża Forest

EU Advocate General Yves Bot has found all of the Commission’s complaints well founded in the dispute surrounding the large-scale harvesting of trees in Poland’s Białowieża Forest (FW 228, guest blog).

In his 20 February 2018 opinion to the Court of Justice of the EU, Bot states that Polish authorities failed to ensure that their forest management decisions would not adversely affect the integrity of the Natura 2000 site and of its protected species. He advises the Court, in its forthcoming decision, to rule that Poland infringed both the Habitat and Birds Directives. The Court is not bound by this opinion.

The opinion contains reminders that are pertinent beyond the immediate legal challenge. By deciding to log, despite a backdrop of scientific controversy and based on an outdated assessment, Polish authorities could not have fully identified the adverse affects, or taken steps to minimise them, thereby violating the Directives’ provisions and the precautionary principle. Concerning Poland’s repeated reference to public safety and a spruce bark beetle infestation to justify the logging, the Advocate General reminded that any derogation from the Directives’ protective obligations must be interpreted narrowly and include thorough analysis of alternatives and of measures to compensate for the logging.

Environmentalists hailed the opinion. Fern’s Hanna Aho said it sent “an important signal that breaking EU nature laws will be taken seriously”. Polish activists were also very pleased, lamenting only that so much forest had been destroyed already.

On the ground in Poland, a positive shift in the authorities’ attitude is apparent, even if some hopes (e.g., making the whole of Białowieża Forest a national park) will not be fulfilled. In an early February meeting with activists, the new environment minister Henryk Kowalczyk listened to their concerns, acknowledging that the mass logging was a mistake and that the controversy had damaged Poland’s good name internationally. He promised that heavy timber harvesting machines would not be used in the Białowieża Forest again.