Defying E.U. Court, Poland Is Cutting Trees in an Ancient Forest

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WARSAW — Defying an order from the European Union’s highest court, the Polish government said on Monday that it would continue logging in Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe and a habitat for hundreds of bison.

The decision is the latest challenge by Poland to the legal authority of the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, and could result in financial penalties. The arch-conservative and nationalist government that took power in Poland in 2015 has been chastised by the authorities in Brussels; last week, it was formally warned that its efforts to consolidate power over the judiciary in Poland threatened the rule of law.

The Bialowieza Forest, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a relic of ancient woodlands in the middle of the European lowlands, at the border of Poland and Belarus.

It has been at the center of a heated debate since Poland’s government tripled the logging limits last year and, in February, repealed protections for areas that include a large number of trees that are more than a century old.

After months of debate between Warsaw and Brussels, the European Commission sued Poland before the top court of the European Union. In a preliminary decision on Friday, the European Court of Justice ordered that all logging in the forest, which is home to protected habitats and species be immediately suspended.

On Monday, Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, who had called the logging a “protective” effort to combat a bark-beetle infestation, said that he ordered an end to the cutting in a third of the forest, but that the logging would continue in the remainder.

By doing so, Mr. Szyszko said, the authorities were conducting “an experiment.” After several years, the ministry will compare the condition of both parts of the forest to determine “who is in the right” — Polish officials and foresters, or the European Commission and dozens of scientists and environmental advocates, who have vehemently opposed the logging, saying it will damage the forest irreparably.

“We thank the commission very much for such a big interest in our forest,” Mr. Szyszko said with a hint of sarcasm. “But we will not be insulted by those who don’t know about the rules of protection of environment.”

Advocates expressed shock.

“I’m speechless,” said Przemyslaw Chylarecki, a zoologist at the Museum and Institute of Zoology at Polish Academy of Sciences. “The court has been crystal clear about the unconditional ban on the large-scale logging and the minister is resorting to these embarrassing gimmicks.”

Mr. Chylarecki said that the ministry’s experiment was pointless.

“It will be years, possibly decades, before we will be able to compare the results of both approaches,” he said. “Meanwhile, we have three harvesters working in the forest along with a team of loggers, which means that up to 1,000 trees are cut every day.”

Tomasz Wesolowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wroclaw, in southwest Poland, said the government’s experiment was deceptive, because much of the area where the logging will be forbidden was new forest.

“They are going to protect trees that were planted a year ago,” he said. “The vast majority of what should be protected unconditionally will be in the other zone, cut down, day by day.”

Shortly after the minister’s announcement, the European Commission issued a statement calling upon Poland to obey the court’s orders.

“All member states are obliged to comply with interim measures by the court,” the commission said.

It will be at least a year before the final settlement of the case by the court. If Poland loses, it could be fined more than 4 million euros ($4.8 million) and possible penalties of up to 300,000 euros every day Poland fails to comply with the court’s decision.

Poland could also be forced to pay before that. Since the right-wing government has defied all formal requests and warnings from the commission, the Court of Justice and Unesco, the commission could decide to impose economic sanctions.

“Since nothing else is working, Brussels will probably start cutting our funds. They have done it before with Poland,” Mr. Wesolowski said. “But it won’t be the foresters or Minister Szyszko who will pay for it. It will be us.”

Konrad Tomaszewski, the head of the State Forests, the government-owned company that is behind the logging, said in an interview with a Catholic radio station on Sunday that the court “talks gibberish.”

“What we do is exactly in line with the protection and forest management plans,” he said. “This is all political.”

Tensions over the forest are rising. Polsat News, a private television broadcaster, said that two loggers attacked its film crew on Saturday in Bialowieza Forest. The police said the crew’s camera was smashed and its memory cards were seized.

The decision to defy the European court will no doubt contribute to a further cooling of relations between Poland and Europe.

“Poland keeps showing Europe what it thinks of it,” Mr. Wesolowski said. “Minister Szyszko basically just told the European court that its decisions can maybe be hung in a toilet, but not respected by a government.”