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Friday, 26 February 2016

Past, present and future of Białowieża Forest: reflections from the Society for Conservation Biology’s European Section

Białowieża Forest is a large forest fragment in Eastern Europe. Different forest types and high structural diversity result in an exceptional biodiversity in Białowieża Forest. More than 17,000 plant and animal species have been recorded in Białowieża Forest. However, despite these ecological values, the forest is currently under threat from unprecedented logging proposed by the new Polish government, ostensibly to halt an outbreak of bark beetle (Scolytinae subfamily). SCB-ES recently checked in with member, Nuria Selva of the Institute of Nature Conservation, Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków, Poland, to find out more about the potential changes in environmental policy in Poland, and how this could affect both the management and protection of Białowieża Forest. 

SCB European Section member Dr. Nuria Selva.

SCB-ES: What is Białowieża Forest and where is it?

Selva: Białowieża Forest, located in the Polish-Belarussian borderland, is the last well-preserved lowland temperate forest in Europe. Most of the forests that once covered the lowland plains of Europe disappeared long ago. Białowieża is the only lowland forest fragment that has persisted through centuries. The persistence of this forest fragment is thanks to long-standing protection set into place by Lithuanian dukes, Polish kings and Russian czars. Industrial exploitation of the forest started over 100 years ago, during WWI. However, historical timber harvesting didn’t result in complete modification or loss of intact forest remnants. Still, old-growth forest stands are an important part of the Białowieża Forest. It is a highly resilient system, where numerous ecological processes and phenomena that have otherwise vanished from the European continent can still be observed. 

Map of Białowieża Forest; under proposed policy changes it could lose UNESCO World Heritage status.

SCB-ES: From our interactions on social media it would seem Białowieża Forest is a special place to many people. Can you tell us more about the forest and species that live there?

Selva: Actually, it is a very special place. To me, the most amazing feature of Białowieża Forest is the close link between life and death. Most trees (except for those logged and extracted) are born and die naturally. A typical Białowieża picture is that of hundreds of tree seedlings strongly competing to grow close to large lying dead trees, which provides them protection and nutrients. These are the forces that for thousands of years have shaped Białowieża Forest and still act today.

The forest lies in the transition of the nemoral and boreal zone, including numerous forest types from deciduous oak-lime-hornbeam and alderwoods to bog-pine forest and taiga-like forest dominated by spruce. The most characteristic features of Białowieża Forest are the forest stands supporting big-old trees (e.g. oaks >400 years old and up to 40 m tall) and expansive tracks of large-dead-wood. These forest stands are especially important to species such as the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). Numerous species of fungi and insects that are connected with dead wood are also present in these old forests, some of them quite rare or relict, and new species are still being discovered. Roughly 5,000 species of fungi and 10,000 species of insects are estimated to inhabit the area. The most emblematic animal is the European bison (Bison bonasus); Białowieża Forest holds the largest population in the world of this species. In addition to the old trees and emblematic species, the forest ecosystem is widely shaped by pulsed resources, like oak masting, rodent fluctuations, winter carrion pulses and caterpillar outbreaks.

European Bison (Bison bonasus) in Białowieża Forest.

SCB-ES: How is the forest valued by the local people/communities?

Selva: In the last century, local people were mostly connected to logging by the Polish State Forest Administration. However, the local economy has been changing and currently more and more local people depend on non-exploitative activities linked to nature tourism and research. Compared to other regions of Eastern Poland, where the forests are intensively logged, Białowieża Forest region has much lower unemployment. Logging benefits a reduced group of people. Consequently, local people, particularly young people, have a wider perspective of the benefits and opportunities that can be gained from protecting Białowieża Forest.  

SCB-ES: It sounds like changes could be afoot with regards to how Białowieża Forest is managed, can you tell us more about this?

Selva: For the last 25 years, after political changes in Poland, a strong campaign supported by scientists and environmental non-government organizations (NGOs), has been pushing for better protection of Białowieża Forest. During this time, the National Park of Białowieża Forest was enlarged, and a large network of reserves was created. In 2012, the 10-year Forest Management Plan was approved for the non-protected part of the forest. Major components of this management plan was to limit timber extraction to 48,000 m3/year, enough to fulfil the local needs, and to set non-intervention practices into place for forest stands >100 years old. In 2014, the UNESCO World Heritage was extended to the whole Białowieża Forest (previously only the National Park was included). However, now, the Polish Government wants to make changes to the Forest Management Plan (as an annex to the official document) to increase the levels of timber extraction, log stands with trees >100 years old, and intense logging of spruces infected by a bark beetle outbreak. The logging industry and Polish Ministry of Environment claim that such measures are needed for the protection of the forest, but are vague about what exactly will remain protected and what will be logged. Under the proposal, more than 40% of the planned harvest will impact species other than spruces (spruces are the primary species affected by the bark beetle).

SCB-ES: If the proposed policy changes are put into place, are there potential impacts? What could it mean for the forest and species that live there?  

Selva: The impacts of increased timber harvesting in Białowieża Forest could be enormous, detrimental and, given the large scale, almost irreversible. First, species connected to infected spruces, like the three-toad woodpecker, and a whole bunch of natural enemies of the bark beetles, will be negatively affected. Second, the forest dynamics and processes connected to gaps created by bark beetles, such as enhanced natural regeneration of spruce and oak, could be disrupted. Instead, forest clear cuts, soil destruction after heavy machinery, reduction in the amount of dead wood, and tree planting with protection against herbivory, among others, will be promoted. Third, the changes proposed by the Polish Government will reduce our ability to see how a resilient forest can manage itself and recover from a natural disturbance whose frequency is increasing due to climate warming. Białowieża Forest is a reference ecosystem and gathering scientific data on how natural forests respond to global change will be extremely important for restoration of managed forests. Finally, Białowieża Forest will lose its character. The name for Białowieża Forest in Polish is ‘Puszcza’, which means ‘left alone and out of control’, but under the intense forestry management proposed by the Polish Government the forest will lose more of its untouched forest stands and face broader-scale timber harvesting. In this case, after several years, the forest is likely to resemble a typical commercial forest rather than ‘Puszcza’.

Białowieża Forest.

SCB-ES: What is the Society for Conservation Biology European Section’s position on these potential policy changes?

Selva: SCB-ES has always supported the protection of old-growths and forests worldwide. In fact it is one of our priorities, and focuses in terms of where we invest our policy efforts. SCB-ES had followed the case of Białowieża Forest by passing Resolutions and informing policy-makers about the potential negative implications of their decision making on the state of the forest. It has strongly advocated for the full protection of natural forests and non-intervention practices. We, the policy committee of SCB-ES, have just submitted letter to the Polish Minister of the Environment asking them to make all efforts to keep up the implementation and enforcement of the approved Forest Management Plan 2012-2021 and to abstain from changing it. We have also communicated our concerns about the potential policy changes around the management and protection of Białowieża Forest more broadly through correspondence in the scientific journal, Nature. 

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Contacts: 
Nuria Selva, nuriselva(at)gmail(dot)com
Steph Januchowski-Hartley, stephirenee(at)gmail(dot)com

This interview was conducted by SCB European Section Board Member, Dr Stephanie (Steph) Januchowski-Hartley (http://srjanuchowski-hartley.com/). You can follow Steph on Twitter @ConnectedWaters to hear more about fishes, Environmental Policy, SciComm and all things in between. 


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