Environmentalists are protesting against mass tree felling in Poland. The EU Commission is also threatening Warsaw with repercussions for logging in a nature reserve. Paul Flückiger reports from Warsaw.
Frascati Street, not far from Polish parliament, was one of the most beautiful boulevards in Warsaw for decades. Many of its trees were over 100 years old. Now, they have all been chopped down. Even a well-known, 200-year-old oak on Mydlarska Street fell victim to a chainsaw.
All of this became possible after an amended law went into effect at the beginning of 2017. Private landowners are no longer required to apply for permission to cut down trees on their property. Jan Szyszko, Poland's environment minister and member of the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) argues that the new law strengthens the rights of private land owners and reduces bureaucracy. As PiS rules with an absolute majority, the new law, also known as "Szyszko's law," was quickly pushed through at the end of 2016.
EU Commission threatening legal action
When the trees started leafing out and blooming in spring, the roar of chainsaws was heard all over Poland. Now things have quieted down as trees can only be felled in exceptional cases during bird breeding season, which runs from March to October. But before that, as much as possible was cut down. At least 1,350 trees disappeared in the first quarter of 2017 in Warsaw's Wawer district alone. If the chainsaws keep running at this pace, Poland may soon lose twice as many trees as it has in previous years. Environmentalists are sounding the alarm, as smog-ridden Poland is disposing of important urban regeneration areas. In Warsaw alone, a city of 2 million inhabitants, 500,000 trees stand on private property.
It was not just the trees felled on private property that sparked controversy. There was outrage - especially internationally - when chainsaws took down trees in the ancient Bialowieza forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to an infestation of the European spruce bark beetle, Environment Minister Szyszko allowed triple the number of trees to be logged. This is a breach of European nature conservation regulations, which is why the EU has now become involved. If the deforestation is not stopped, Poland will be taken to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg for violating EU treaties. It is not the first time that Brussels has been unhappy with Poland's handling of its nature reserves.
A hunter as environment minister
So far, however, the Polish environment minister does not seem to be bothered much by the commotion. Jan Szyszko has often been a target of anger. Only days after taking office, he had the word "protection" removed from the name of his department: Now the "Ministry of the Environmental Protection" is the Ministry of the Environment.
Szyszko was also drew criticism for allowing bison hunting. He tried to placate the public by saying that only "sick or aggressive" animals were to be killed. In some places, like the Warmia region in the north of the country, the minister's decisions have met resistance on the local level. A Warmia environmental protection committee recently rejected a ministerial request to allow extra deer hunting on a reserve. Szyszko unflinchingly claimed that the deer ate too many offshoots from trees and thus had to be shot.
Act of revenge in the minister's garden
The environment minister drew backlash over the winter when anti-government media reported on his pheasant hunt. Around 500 birds under species protection were bred over a long period of time, with the goal of releasing them into the wild. When they were let out of their cages, Szyszko was there with his gun.
Ultimately, this angered a declared enemy of hunters, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The PiS party leader demanded improvements in the law that allowed the unrestricted mass tree felling on private property. But no one has managed to get rid of the environment minister. As a representative of the ultra-Catholic wing of the government, Szyszko also enjoys Kaczynski's political support and protection.
Over the next few days, the timber laws will at the very least be discussed again in parliament. It is expected that the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament, will adopt an amendment that restricts cutting down trees on private property. That is why pressure from outside of Poland - including Brussels - has become all the more important.
In the meantime, environmental activists in Poland are growing more and more radical: Szyszko recently witnessed "a picture of the destruction," as he later indignantly told the media, in his country residence garden in West Pomerania. Unknown trespassers chopped down about 30 silver firs on his property. He told the ultra-Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja that it was the "the worst vandalism." The police, on the other hand, viewed it as an act of protest.