While in Poland recently for work, I took a couple days out to see the old growth forest located on the country’s eastern border with Belarus. It’s an incredible place, thick with massive oaks and a myriad of other broadleaf deciduous trees, plus boars, bison, lynx, roe deer, martens, and three packs of wolves running around under their massive crowns!

The fact that such a place exists in Europe shocked me — I’d been under the impression that all of its original forest was gone, but here stands, still, the Bialowieza forest (thanks in part to geography and also to czars and kings who kept it as part of their private hunting reserves). It’s a snapshot of the continent’s past, protected by a national park which contains at its core 4,700 hectares of strictly protected old growth. I had the opportunity to prowl around this restricted area with one of the forest’s key scholars and champions, Janusz Korbel, a founder of the critically important grassroots group Bialowieza International Solidarity Network (BISON).

And Bialowieza needs champions like BISON, inexplicably, as many seem to see more value in the forest’s boardfeet than its biodiversity.

Most of the forest outside the protected area is “managed” by logging companies, and hunters take their share of animals each year in unprotected areas. Critters are killed by cars, too, on the many paved roads traversing the forest, and this will only get worse if an oil company gets its way. It’s proposing an oil transportation center north of the park, but within the boundaries of the forest and in an important hunting ground for lynx, which would create more conflicts between animals and trucks carrying massive tanks of fuel.

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Janusz and I met the Park superintendent who’s proposing a 2 km buffer area around the 4,700 core hectares where hunting would be further restricted, to keep more creatures from getting shot this year. But what Bialowieza really seems to need is for much more of the forest to receive National Park protection. Its edges are already uncomfortably close, and impacts from development keep creeping closer.

Enlargement of the park is BISON’s goal, and it seems to this outsider like the right move. Those in Poland’s urban centers support such a move, but it’s a tough sell with national leaders and even tougher in the towns bordering the forest, which are governed and influenced heavily by folks employed by the wood products industry. Yet the forest attracts legions of tourists every year — the biggest hotel employs more people than all of the folks engaged in logging. Why not study and steward this last vestige of Europe’s past for its future? Who knows what we might learn?

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