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Europe hosts a myriad of magnificent forests that seem to be diminishing every year. E&M’s Sam Volpe investigates the protection of EUrope’s forests, alongside some beautiful photography by Diego Barbadillo.

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Photo: Diego Barbadillo ; Licence: CC BY 2.0

Forests have long held a special place in the European mythos. Foundational fictional tales of mystical woodland abound across the continent— from Shakespeare’s Arden and Birnam Wood to the Brothers’ Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. I’ve always loved forests. Probably because of this ubiquity in our shared stories. In the stories, woodland is usually one of two things: It harbours humans, and provides a

haven or it scares and threatens us. Behind the next tree hides either an elf or two, or else a wicked witch.

The reality is of course more prosaic.

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Photo:Diego Barbadillo; Licence:CC BY 2.0 

Trees keep the planet going, and as humans we are are rapidly destroying them. We face a great problem: ‘How do we cope with rocketing population levels?’ In many cases the answer has been to expand, nature be damned. In satellite images of Earth, one of the key changes in the way our planet appears is the rapidly dwindling woodland. This said, the European statistics regarding forests are generally good. Forest cover in Europe has spent the past decade or so increasing year on year. Vast areas are protected from human activity. 

It is not all rosy though. In recent weeks, it has been in the news that, in Eastern Poland, logging has begun in Białowieża forest. A Unesco World Heritage site, Białowieża is home to some of the only remaining primeval forest) in Europe, and a huge number of plant and animal species only found in the area. 

Unesco sent a small delegation to Białowieża in early June in hope of gauging the situation, but have yet to report publically, whilst the European Commission is to open proceedings against Poland on the basis of their infringements of environmental directives and the Natura 2000 program. Meanwhile, Rafał Kowalczyk, director of the Mammal Research Institute inside Białowieża, told The Guardian  of his misgivings. “Unhappy is not a good word – we are devastated, if we allow it to become a managed forest, its value and its biodiversity will be lost. It will take hundreds of years to reverse this kind of destruction.” Whether or not the rationale for the removal of more than 180,000 cubic meters of forest— apparently to protect it from a particular parasitic beetle and to clear dangerous trees from tourist trails— is an honest one, on a base level this feels like a sad moment. A human incursion on the previously untouched, and for all the protections supposedly in place, the fear is that the forest is being treated as an economy, not an ecosystem.

The European Commission has long considered protection of forested areas of vital importance, and some areas, including parts of Białowieża do fall under the protection of the Natura 2000 scheme designed to protect areas of biodiversity. Publications from the Commission tend to draw the general health of the continent’s forests in terms of “perspective”, subtly highlighting the unnerving power of vested interests. Elements of the Executive Summary of a 2009 report are telling, explaining these perspectives as “commodity” driven, and “amenity” driven. The first suggests that forests ought to be maintained to maximise their material usefulness, the second that the natural state of a forest is in itself useful.

The jargon is dense and off-putting, but it boils down to a conflict between what our forests are for. Are they areas of land to be used in the most efficient (read: short-term) way possible? Or are they unique places with far greater importance? This is the debate going on in Białowieża. And for all the easy complacency, European policy is, the Commission admits, in places indirect.

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Photo: Diego Barbadillo ; Licence: CC BY 2.0

The same report I mention above suggests that the various safeguards in place for European forests “do not, however, provide a coherent and binding policy framework”. Which means that we probably should be doing more.

When I decided to write this piece, I took a walk. I ended up in a tiny area of woodland, but even there it was easy to look around and perhaps irrationally panic at the way humanity has used our world. Of course, reconciling the hard-to-measure benefits of our continent’s (and our world’s) forests with money is difficult, but perhaps it’s time we took stock. With global warming changing our environment in ways we barely understand, we ought to preserve the places that offer unique scientific insight and fire our imaginations so. There is something wonderful in the idea of not controlling nature, and by leaving woods, from Białowieża to the North of England and beyond, alone, we can learn so much more about our environment than we can by exploiting it. 

Indeed, the way we have treated our forests across Europe in the past, seems to belie both their cultural and geological importance. Not to mention their essential role as havens of biodiversity and bulwarks against continuing global warming. Timber is important, but so are wild places. To coin a phrase, we can’t see the trees, and their importance, for the wood.


Cover photo: Diego Barbadillo; Licence: CC BY 2.0

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    Sam Volpe

    Former Editor

    Samuele Volpe is a real person of age and location undisclosed. For all enquiries please hire a private detective. Or follow him on Twitter @samuelevolpe

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