By Anna Koper and Marcin Goettig
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland will approve a tripling in the volume of wood to be harvested from Bialowieza Forest, the environment minister said on Friday, putting the country on a collision course with the European Union and environmentalists.
The minister's approval of increased logging from the last primeval woodland in Europe comes despite an EU warning that it could fall foul of environmental regulation and follows previous clashes over coal usage and migrants, as well as the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party's move to take greater control of the judiciary and public media.
The Bialowieza Forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site that sprawls across the border between Poland and Belarus, occupying almost 580 square miles of woodland and providing home to rare European wood bison among others.
Minister Jan Szyszko and foresters have said that more trees need to be cut down because of an infestation of the European spruce bark beetle. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say that increased logging will cause irreparable damage to the ancient forest, which attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The minister said that he will approve a proposal to increase the volume of wood to be harvested from Bialowieza to about 188,000 cubic meters from the current limit of 63,000 cubic meters for 2012-2021, which is already close to being exhausted.
"The annex will be signed today," Szyszko said, referring to the proposed increase. "The aim is to stop the degradation of habitats important to the community and to start the process of regenerating these habitats."
Environmentalist say that such a move will destroy the unique character of the forest and, though it will offer short-term gains to about 140 foresters, will ultimately hit local communities by reducing the number of tourists.
Scientists have said that Bialowieza is 8,000 years old, but Szyszko disputes their findings and told public radio last week that parts of the forest had been created by an "enterprising hand of man" on lands that centuries ago included fields of wheat and millet.
"An attempt to fight the bark beetle with a chainsaw and an ax will bring more damage than benefits," said Robert Cyglicki, the head of Greenpeace Polska.
His organization has helped to gather more than 120,000 signatures to block the logging and he hopes that Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo will reverse Szyszko's move.
(Editing by David Goodman)