(CN) – Europe’s highest court on Monday again ordered Poland to immediately stop logging operations in what’s left of an ancient forest that once covered the European plain, and threatened fines of $117,000 per day in a case that's pitted the EU and environmentalists against Poland’s conservative government for most of the year.
The Bialowieza Forest is one of the largest and last remaining parts of an immense primeval forest located in Poland and Belarus. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the once-mighty forest – home to the threatened European bison – was severely plundered of timber and wildlife in the 20th century.
In 2007, the European Commission moved to protect the forest under its Natura 2000 environmental program, designating it as important as home to numerous bird and wildlife species. Since then, however, forest managers lobbied for logging under the guise of cleanup since almost have the wood in the forest is dead.
Their efforts stalled until 2016, when Poland’s new environmental minister – a former forester – approved plans to triple the amount of logging in the Bialowieza Forest. The minister denied the forest is 8,000 years old, claiming instead it was created by “an enterprising hand of man” on what used to be wheat fields.
Also, an outbreak of spruce bark beetle created more dead trees and led the Polish government to increase the logging area from 84,000 acres to nearly 156,000 acres. The European Commission sued, claiming the entire project violates the Natura 2000 designation, and sought an emergency injunction of logging activities while the case is litigated.
The European Court of Justice issued the injunction in July, which Poland promptly defied. This led the Luxembourg-based high court to up the ante on Monday, issuing an order to cease and desist all “active forest management operations” or face fines of at least $117,000 for every day the order is violated, according to a statement issued by the court.
According to the court, the order and threat of fines are necessary to protect the Bialowieza Forest from “serious and irreparable damage for the interests of the EU and for its common heritage.” Furthermore, the court said if the commission’s claims are true the damage done by logging will be impossible to rectify after the fact.
The EU high court did, however, tailor the order by excluding any logging operations “strictly necessary to ensure, directly and immediately, the public safety of persons,” according to the court’s statement.
But the court rejected Poland’s demand for a security bond from the EU of $889 billion, based on Polish law requiring compensation when land loses its status as forested land – which the Polish government said would be its cost of complying with the order to stop logging.
The court ordered Poland to send details of everything it’s done to comply with the ban on logging in the Bialowieza Forest to the commission within 15 days. The commission will then determine whether Poland is in compliance with the cease-and-desist order and the court will, if necessary, begin imposing fines after that time.
An English translation of the court’s order will not be available until Nov. 30, a court spokeswoman said.
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