In its ruling of 17 April 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that the Government of Poland has failed to fulfill its obligations to protect the Białowieska Forest and ordered the immediate repeal of illegal logging permits.
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled last month that the Government of Poland broke EU wildlife laws by allowing increased logging in Białowieża Forest. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Natura 2000 Site, the ancient forest is home to the largest remaining population of European bison, as well as a variety of rare birds and insects. This ruling will have an impact beyond Białowieża Forest by setting a higher standard for forestry assessments across Europe.
The origins of the case go back to March 2016 when Jan Szyszko – then Polish Minister for Environment – tripled logging limits maintaining measures had to be taken to deter beetle infestation and forest fires despite warnings from scientists across Europe that it would be very harmful. The Commission subsequently launched the legal case following a formal complaint made by ClientEarth and six other environmental organizations. In July 2017, the case was referred to the Court of Justice, which issued an injunction banning logging across the entirety of Białowieża Forest except in circumstances concerning public safety. Despite this, trees continued to be felled every day. After a change in the government, Poland’s new Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk suspended most logging in January pending the Court’s final decision. The ruling came very quickly when the Court of Justice of the EU decided on 17 April 2018 that the logging is indeed illegal. The issued judgment is final and the parties cannot seek an appeal.
First, the Court declared that so-called ‘appropriate assessment’, according to the EU’s Habitats Directive, was not carried out properly. This assessment is required when there is a likelihood that a plan or project will have a significant effect on a particular site. It was ruled that "[...] active forest management operations which consist in removing and felling a significant number of trees, may, by their very nature, cause lasting harm to the ecological characteristics of that site, since they are inevitably liable to bring about the disappearance or the partial and irreparable destruction of the protected habitats and species present on that site."
The Court further highlighted that there is scientific controversy regarding the most appropriate measures to stop the spread of the spruce bark beetle as, according to certain views in the scientific community, it "[...] formed part of a natural cycle corresponding to periodic trends specific to the characteristics of the site whose preservation was the objective justifying the site’s designation." Consequently, the Polish authorities should not have increased logging, since there was no scientific certainty that the active forest management operations would not have lasting adverse effects on the integrity of Białowieża Forest.
Second, the Court also stated that logging in the Białowieża Forest endangers the protected species within the ecosystem, in particular through deterioration or destruction of their breeding sites or disturbance of their rearing periods. Therefore, the lifecycles of the four bird species typical of such natural forests - the pygmy owl, the boreal owl, the white-backed woodpecker, and the three-toed woodpecker - are threatened by the active forest management operations.
In recent developments, a press conference by the coalition of original plaintiffs highlighted the lack of implementation at the one-month mark of the Court's decision. A semi-victory was then notched when Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk called on 14 May 2018 to repeal one of the two illegal logging permits.
by Agata Szafraniuk, Lawyer - Biodiversity Programme, ClientEarth Poland