Poland has begun felling sick trees in the ancient, first-growth Bialowieza forest in the country's northeast. Much of this pristine wilderness is a national park and UNESCO heritage site - a rarity in Europe.
The environment ministry has said loggers will chop down more than 180,000 cubic meters (6.4 million cubic feet) of wood. The ministry said that the logging is meant to eliminate dying trees which are affected by the bark beetle, in order to ensure safety for more than 120,000 tourists a year visiting the Polish side alone of the wilderness area which straddles the border to Belarus.
However, activists claim the move is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. "The major scientific bodies in Poland that deal with forest biology and ecology oppose the logging plans, and are pushing to make the entire forest a protected national park," Katarzyna Jagiello, Greenpeace Poland spokesperson told DW.
The entire Bialowieza forest covers around 60,000 hectares (148,260 acres) in eastern Poland, and stretches into Belarus with a total of about 150,000 hectares. Bialowieza is one of the last remaining parts of the primal forest that once stretched across the northern European lowlands.
Although designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, only parts of the Polish section of the forest are protected as a natural park, while in neighboring Belarus, the entire forest is protected.
"We have very little forestation in Europe that is not planted by man," says Jagiello. "The existence of this forest dates back 9,000 years, and until World War I, it was also protected by Polish kings and tsars. What we are preserving here are long-standing natural processes."
Besides its rich history, Bialowieza is also home to 20,000 animal species, including 250 types of bird and hundreds of European bison, the continent's largest mammal.
It has also been declared a Natura 2000 site, meaning it is a protected area under European law which is meant to preserve Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.
However, despite the protests, the Polish Ministry of Environment claims it will not touch the protected parts of the forest. But Jagiello says this will result in intensifying the logging in other parts.
Other critics claim that the ministry is making up excuses for the logging, varying from dealing with the bark beetle, to Natura 2000 sites they want to preserve, to protection from fires, "but their real reason is strong ties with the wood industry and with foresters," says G., a Polish activist who wished to remain anonymous.
Jagiello says that even the official excuse of fighting the bark beetle "could potentially pose a problem only in managed forests. In a natural forest," she says, "Everything is part of a natural change of the forest. The bark beetle occurs in Bialowieza in cycles. Last time it happened was 15 years ago, so that we have perfect example of how this forest is rebuilding itself."
Fighting the beetle by chopping trees and planting new ones instead will not help, she says, on the contrary.
"Replanting is even worse than cutting. If all the trees are the same age, the foresters themselves invite the reoccurrence of the bark beetle in the future, without leaving any possibility for old trees to protect new ones from the beetle."
'Accusations are a paradox'
Jagiello says that an act of law to protect the forest as a national park has already been prepared in the past by a team of experts appointed by the late President Lech Kaczynski, who created a plan for sustainable growth based on tourism for the entire region.
The team, Jagiello claims, forwarded the plan to the environment minister Jan Szyszko, who also served in this position back then, but in vain.
"What they really want is wood production," says G. "The fact that the minister of environment is himself a forester and a lecturer at the faculty of forest management plays a very important role."
G. also says that national forestry is a very big employer in the country, and a strong political power.
"In small towns and villages in Poland you have a priest and a forester, and they are both members of the village council. Most of the forests in Poland are owned by the state, so national forestry is basically managing about 30 percent of our lands."
The European Commission has also expressed concern over the logging plan, but Szyszko insists that beetle-affected trees in the forest need to be removed to stop the infestation.
Following the extensive media coverage, the Polish Ministry of Environment has issued a statement, in which it attacks the British newspaper, The Guardian, as well as the French news agency AFP, claiming that they both preferred "to remain silent about the devastating operations carried out by the English Company The Century European Timber Corporation" in their reporting.
In the statement, the ministry argues that any accusation coming from a British media outlet "is a paradox," adding that between 1924 and 1929 "the company cut down over 3,000,000 cubic meters of wood from the most beautiful areas of the forest [which ] is among the worst [disasters] in the history of the Bialowieza Forest."
In an email sent to DW after this article was published, Krzysztof Trebski, a public relations representative of the General Directorship of the State Forests of Poland, attempted to clarify what he called "a typical misunderstanding" in the media.
Trebski wrote that "very limited logging" is planned for the Bialowieza state forest, but not for the national park that contains much of it. He added that it was to remove diseased trees and would not affect one of the last primeval forests in Europe.