By Agnieszka Barteczko
BIALOWIEZA, Poland (Reuters) - Bialowieza Forest sprawls across the border between Poland and Belarus, occupying almost 580 square miles of woodland and providing a home to bison, boars, beavers - and beetles. The beetles are a problem.
The bark beetle, or Ips typgraphus, eats spruce trees, which make up a fair amount of the forest. Quite a few beetles showed up in 2012, and they're still in the forest, gnawing on the spruces.
Polish foresters who live and work in Bialowieza say they have a solution: let them cut down more spruce trees than they're currently allotted, to save the rest. They hope Poland's environmental minister will agree.
Environmental campaigners are furious, the European Commission is displeased and UNESCO is unhappy, since it has listed Bialowieza - the last primeval forest in Europe - as a World Heritage site. But previous decisions by the environmental minister, Jan Szyszko, suggest he will side with the foresters.
Around a sixth of the forest in Poland is a national park, where trees cannot be cut. The rest is operated by three forest units, supervised by the state-owned National Forest Holding, which takes an economic view of trees.
"The minister sees the forest as a wood depot," said Robert Cyglicki, the head of Greenpeace Polska.
The environmentalists say any interference with nature in Bialowieza will do irreparable damage. They also say cutting down the trees wouldn't do much to control the beetles.
Those opposed to more cutting point out Ips typgraphus shows up regularly - there have been eight infestations since the end of the nineteen century. By killing spruces, they let in more sunlight, so other trees can grow. The dead trees also provide food and nesting sites for various insects and plants.
"The forest is not dying because of the beetles, as some believe," Bogdan Jaroszewicz, a biologist at Warsaw University, and Jerzy Gutowski from the Forest Research Institute, said in a joint report. "The recent outbreak, just as the previous ones, corrects the unnaturally high share of spruce in the treestands."
Some in the local communities agree with that. A growing number oppose expanding the logging, and they plan to send a letter, signed by 400 people, to the prime minister calling for the forest protection.
On the other hand, many in the local communities say the environmentalists are attacking their way of life and the source of their livelihood. And it's true the latest infestation is the worst in decades. Almost half a million trees are affected over 4,000 hectares, out of the 52,000 looked after by foresters.
"My heart hurts when I look at the forest as it is now," said Krystyna Cieslak, a Bialowieza resident. "I don't think I have seen anything like that before."
Besides losing the forest, the foresters fear losing their jobs. About 140 of them work in the three forest units in the area, earning an average 5,100 zlotys ($1,285) a month. They have already harvested almost all the 63,000 cubic meters they were granted for 2012-21. They want that increased threefold, to 188,000 cubic meters.
"We are obliged by law to protect the forest from the beetle," said Krzysztof Zamojski, a Bialowieza councillor and a forester.
Szyszko, the environmental minister, is no stranger to environmental controversy. He has expressed doubts that global warming is man-made, and he backed building a motorway across the protected area of the Rospuda River in northeastern Poland when he was last minister.
But Brussels has told Poland "substantial harvesting is likely to be problematic under EU nature protection legislation". UNESCO has said, "Only two sites have ever been removed from the World Heritage List and it is premature, from our point of view, to discuss such an extreme measure in the case of Bialowieza."
Scientists also point out Bialowieza is 8,000 years old. It has survived two world wars, the German occupation and communist rule. It has always survived Ips typgraphus.
Czeslaw Okolow is 80 years old and a retired head of the Bialowieza National Park. "In the area of the national park, no one has fought the beetle since 1921," he said, "and spruce is still there, young and old."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels, editing by Larry King)