What's the fate of Europe's last ancient forest?


The UK's Independent reports from Bialowieza Primeval Forest, which is threatened by the age-old conflict of economic growth versus conservation.

Much of eastern Europe was covered by forests similar to Bialowieza, but most did not benefit from the historical protection afforded Bialowieza because of its strategic political, geographical and hunting importance to ancient kings. Its future today is, sadly, not as secure. Climate change and economic futures cloud this otherwise pristine landscape.

The 380,000 acre forest sits on the border between Poland and Belarus and is one of the largest woodlands in Europe. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and is a powerful reminder of Europe's wooded history.

But, all is not well in the woods. On the Polish side residents are in opposition to the plans to extend the protected area, which is under threat from rising temperatures and declining rainfall. This conflicts with the Polish government who are keen to expand the size of the national park after consultation with international conservation bodies.

The forest is home to more than 3,000 species of fungi, 178 species of breeding birds, and 58 species of mammal according to the Independent. These include wolves, lynx and 800 European bison, the continent's heaviest land animals. Despite having a distinct effect on the trees, especially spruce, so far the climatic changes have not endangered the bison because they adapt easily to a shifting environment.

Despite the local communities being offered money as part of a deal to extend the protected area (approximately £20m) the residents of the Bialowieza district are sceptical; fearing it would discourage investment, cause job losses and reduce community tax revenue. Bringing the community into the national park would mean any future infrastructure and development projects would be virtually impossible and this limited economic future is quite frightening for the local communities.