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Poland will respect a European Union Court of Justice ruling that found it breached EU law by scaling up logging in the ancient Bialowieza Forest, the country's environment minister said April 17.

In a judgement widely hailed by environment groups, the Luxembourg-based court said the Polish government had "failed to fulfil its obligations" under EU law when it issued logging orders in 2016 and 2017 that nearly tripled the permitted timber harvest from the forest, including from areas that were previously safeguarded against any human intervention.

The forest, which straddles the Poland/Belarus border is considered one of Europe's most important conservation areas. It is a United Nations World Heritage site, is home to rare species including the wolf, lynx, and European bison, and was a hunting ground for Polish kings and Russian Tsars.

Poland had argued more intervention was needed in the forest to fell trees and remove dead wood in order to prevent the spread of the spruce bark beetle, which can damage forests. However, the need for logging to combat the spruce bark beetle was not sufficiently justified in the Polish government's plans for the forest, the court said.

Poland would work on a long-term protection plan for Bialowieza, which was "our national heritage; all the activities that were carried out in the forest were dictated by the concern to preserve it in the best possible condition for future generations," Polish environment minister Henryk Kowalczyk said in an April 17 statement.

The ruling was expected after a court advocate-general declared the logging out of step with EU law in a nonbinding opinion issued in February.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm which brought the case against Poland, "expects Poland to implement this decision in order to ensure the long-term conservation of this unique site," commission spokesman Enrico Brivio said April 17.

The ruling does not prevent logging in Bialowieza, but any future decisions "must be carefully assessed before their adoption and implementation" and must take account of objectives established by a key EU conservation law, the 1992 Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), Brivio said.

The ruling does not impose any penalty on Poland, but if the country breaches the court's order it could face further legal action and fines "potentially reaching tens of millions of euros," environmental group ClientEarth said in an April 17 statement.

Part of the forest is a protected national park, and the Polish authorities should extend this across a wider area "to guarantee that devastation of the forest will not happen again," said James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO.

The court found Poland also contravened the EU Birds Directive, which requires EU countries to protect wild bird species. The court judgement had "stopped the chainsaw massacre of Europe’s most iconic forest, but only after substantial damage has already been done," said Ariel Brunner, head of policy at BirdLife Europe.

By Stephen Gardner.

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