Seeing a Forest for the Trees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fallen giant, a decaying, moss-covered oak tree toppled by an autumn storm 27 years ago, is quite literally the stuff of which legends are made.

Six centuries ago, a great Polish king is said to have camped out under the massive tree. Now the oak is laid to rest in a kind of arboreal elephants' graveyard in this forest where bison and other rare species such as lynx still roam.

No matter that no one knows for sure if the king rested exactly here. The tree was so old and impressive that visitors to the Bialowieza National Forest found the fable, created by an early park director, easy to believe.

Enamored of their personal hunting ground, kings and czars long protected the forest--even executing poachers and illegal woodcutters. And Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's deputy, reportedly was so captivated by Bialowieza that he wanted to turn the whole of northeastern Poland into a hunting playground.

Now environmentalists such as park scientist Andrzej Bobiec dream of expanding the national park, part of Europe's only surviving temperate-zone primeval forest.

But Bobiec's dream is Andrzej Kullis' nightmare.

"People wouldn't have jobs if the park was enlarged," Kullis, 43, a lumberyard worker, said as he guided timber through a mechanical saw in a workshop at the forest's edge. "I would have to dress as some primitive human being in leather clothes with a bludgeon in my hand, sit in the forest and allow people to take photos of me."

The Bialowieza forest, a mix of evergreen and broad-leaved species, straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. It totals about 580 square miles, with 42% on the Polish side. The Polish national park is 40 square miles, about half of it a nature reserve covering the forest's largest old-growth area. The entire Belarussian side is a national park.

The government in Warsaw had planned to enlarge the park early this year to take in the entire Polish side of the forest, but a lack of funds and consensus has caused an indefinite delay. Advocates are still pushing for the expansion.

The battle has become one of the key environmental disputes in Europe, the equivalent of American fights over the future of old-growth forests.

It would be virtually impossible to restore anything like Bialowieza in the heavily human-influenced forests elsewhere in Europe, said Marek Borkowski, a wildlife expert who sometimes guides visitors to Bialowieza. But the preservation of some essentially untouched areas here means that a truly natural ecosystem could eventually recover throughout the forest, he said.

The forest hosts more than 12,000 species of animal life, from one-celled protozoa to the European bison, which are distinct from the American bison, with the males having a slightly smaller body and longer horns.

"This forest was saved because the bison were here [attracting the hunting interest of kings and czars], and the bison were saved because it was a good forest," said Czeslaw Okolow, the national park's director.

The bison--which 3,000 years ago roamed almost all of Europe--died out in the wild in 1919, when a poacher killed the last one in the forest. They were restored through a breeding program launched at Bialowieza in 1929 with two animals from zoos, a male named Borusse and a female called Biserta. At the time, only about 50 European bison, most of them past breeding age, were left in the world. The future of the species rested on about 20 animals, some of which were brought here.

The first two free-roaming bison were released from the breeding program in 1952, and the first calf was born in the wild in 1957. By 1966, 38 animals had been released, and in 1971 the number of free bison exceeded 200.

Today, Bialowieza is home to the world's largest free-roaming European bison herd, about 280 animals, which are culled every year to keep them from overwhelming the forest's ability to support them. Also living here are wolves, lynx, red deer, roe deer, moose, wild boar, foxes, martens, weasels, badgers, dormice and pygmy shrews. Birds include eagles, goshawks, tawny owls and the white-backed woodpecker.

The forest is also home to the tarpan horse, which became extinct in the wild in the 18th century and survived only in captivity in a form interbred with domestic horses. In the 1930s, selective "back-breeding" for original wild horse characteristics re-created this forest horse, which closely resembles paintings of wild tarpans from more than 200 years ago--and also recalls cave dwellers' 15,000-year-old horse paintings.

The forest includes oak, linden, hornbeam, ash, maple, pine, spruce, birch and aspen. The decaying wood of fallen trees supports a large quantity of rare fungi. An important part of natural forest ecosystems, the fungi have survived because there has always been plenty of dead and rotting wood in Bialowieza. Because of logging, that is not the case in other lowland European forests outside the continent's extreme north.

Enlarging the protected area will be good for nearby residents as well as for scientists and visitors from around the world, advocates argue. They contend that logging sufficient to meet local needs could continue in certain parts of the forest.

Foresters say that enough of Bialowieza is already protected and that the local communities nearby are too dependent on timber production for it to be sharply reduced.

They also say that in the coming decades, key parts of the managed forest can be more quickly restored to resemble a natural state if selective cutting and planting continue.

Young oak trees, for example, are more numerous in the managed forest--and closer to the natural level of a couple of centuries ago--than they are in the park's "strict reserve," which saw heavy grazing by animals during parts of the 20th century, said forester Andrzej Antczak.

The foresters operate under some rules that they generally don't agree with, including a moratorium on cutting any trees older than 100 years. This contributes to making forestry here a money-losing operation because the older trees are the most valuable.

A large majority of locals and their elected representatives want to keep most of the forest free of national park restrictions.

"People in the area definitely are against expansion of the park," said Andrzej Gierasimiuk, 33, the owner of the sawmill where Kullis works. "It's not just a question of trees--it's people too."

But some locals agree with the environmentalists that catering to tourists holds better long-term prospects.

"If you cut a tree, you can sell it once, but if you let it grow, you can sell it many times," said Stefan Jakimiuk, who grew up in the area and now works here for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Jakimiuk said he understands local concerns about a reduction in logging, and the fear that city people will be the ones to benefit from any changes that occur.

Many here predict that if larger hotels are built, they are more likely to be owned by investors from Warsaw than by local people. But supporters of the ecotourism path argue that such hotels would still provide worthwhile jobs and support for the local economy.

The Polish and Lithuanian monarchs who loved Bialowieza as a hunting resort granted local inhabitants certain limited privileges in the forest but required them to cooperate in its preservation. The strictness of protection ebbed and flowed, but commoners generally felt a shared interest with the monarchy in preserving the forest, park scientist Bobiec said.

"This system worked very effectively for 300 years, until the end of the 18th century, when Poland lost independence," he added. "Already at that time it was the last forest in Europe that preserved wild bison."

In 1830-31, forestry officials with local roots joined an unsuccessful uprising against Russian rule and were replaced by outside officials, leading to "antagonism between nature conservation and local interests," Bobiec said. In the mid-19th century, the forest was incorporated in the estates of the Russian czar and was strictly protected as a hunting ground.

The forest was free of large-scale logging until 1915, the start of three years of German occupation during World War I, when roughly 1 million trees were cut. That produced a new working class dependent on industrial-scale forestry. German soldiers also shot bison for food.

After World War I, newly independent Poland moved quickly to save the forest, which now fell entirely within its territory. A group of naturalists visited it in 1919 to determine whether any bison survived. Although none did, the visit led to the 1921 creation of a protected reserve that was the direct forerunner of the national park, formally set up in 1932 on 18 square miles of forest and expanded to 40 square miles in 1996.

During World War II, the Soviets and later the Germans conquered the area. Under Soviet occupation, parts of the forest were heavily logged, but "when the Germans came, they established a real nature reserve" in the best-preserved part of the forest, Bobiec said. The Germans, however, left an unsavory imprint on the history of efforts to save nature in this region.

Goering, the No. 2 figure in the Nazi regime, took an intense interest in the forest, which he used as a private hunting area, Bobiec said. But the Nazis made efforts to depopulate the area, both to protect the hunting grounds and to cut off support for resistance fighters hiding in the forest, he said.

"It was on the personal orders of Goering that the bison and their forest were not touched," according to "The Battle of the Bison Forest," a 1985 video documentary.

"As an obsessive hunter, Goering was very taken by Bialowieza," the documentary said, "and even at this stage, his sinister mind was probably trying to figure out how to take the forest for himself when the Nazis invaded."

At the end of World War II, the Bialowieza forest was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule, the Belarussian side was a conservation area used for hunting by domestic and foreign dignitaries. Former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin met the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus at a hunting lodge in the Bialowieza forest village of Viskuli on Dec. 7, 1991, when they reached agreement on plans for a new commonwealth to replace the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, which officially broke up 18 days later.

On the Polish side, local inhabitants acquiesced to the park's 1996 enlargement only reluctantly. Now, as debate continues about whether the park should be expanded to take in the entire Polish side of the forest, the cultural clash between the two sides remains painfully sharp.

Where ecologists and scientists see natural beauty and scientific treasure, others see lost opportunity and decay.

Gierasimiuk, the sawmill owner, said he finds the ban on cutting any trees more than 100 years old particularly upsetting.

"I simply think that this wood is getting wasted," he said. "It's enough if you go to the reserve, and you see what kind of wood is just lying there and rotting away."

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