CJEU rules increased Bialowieza logging violates EU law

Decisions of the Polish authorities to increase logging in the Bialowieza Forest violate EU law, the EU Court of Justice ruled in Luxembourg on Tuesday, pointing out that they cannot be justified by the unprecedented gradation of the European spruce bark beetle.

The ruling, which ends the 2016 instigated dispute, was issued by the Grand Chamber of the CJEU consisting of 15 judges. There is no appeal against the ruling which took full account of the complaint lodged by the European Commission against Poland. Poland's Environment Ministry has already announced that it will comply with the court's ruling.

Reading out the CJEUI's decision, Judge Marek Safjan (not a member of the adjudicating panel) emphasised that Poland did not ensure effective prohibition against purposeful killing, intrusion, deterioration and destruction of areas inhabited by species protected by EU directives.

"With today's ruling, the Court of Justice decided that Poland violated EU law by the felling and removal of a large number of trees in the Bialowieza Primeval Forest." According to the Tribunal, these activities led to the destruction of part of the Natura 2000 protected site," CJEU spokesperson Ireneusz Kolowca said.

The ruling does not entail any financial consequences because Poland, facing a penalty of 100,000 euros a day, had previously withdrawn heavy equipment from the forest and ceased logging. If, however, logging was resumed, the Commission could again motion for fines.

The judges found that Poland did not fulfill its obligations under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. It was in accordance with the Habitats Directive that in 2007 the European Commission approved the designation of the Natura 2000 site in the Bialowieza Forest. It also constitutes a 'special protection' area for birds, specified under the Birds Directive.

Despite these regulations, in 2016 the then Environment Minister Jan Szyszko almost tripled the timber harvesting limit for the years 2012-2021 due to the bark beetle infestation.

In 2017, the Director of State Forests issued a decision on the removal of trees affected by the pest or posing a threat to "public safety" on around half of the Natura 2000 site.

The EC, which in 2016 started the EU law infringement procedure against Poland, in mid-2017 submitted a motion to the CJEU to ascertain that Poland did not fulfill its obligations under the Habitats and Birds Directives.

The judges also pointed out to forest managers and the Environment Ministry that they would carry out logging due to "public safety" without any specific conditions justifying the removal of trees for this reason.

Poland's Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk said on Tuesday that Poland will respect the EU Court of Justice's decision.