By Barbara Lewis and Agnieszka Barteczko
BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) - The European Union executive on Thursday stepped up efforts to stop Poland from its planned increase in logging in Europe's last primeval forest, adding to bad blood between Brussels and Warsaw.
The Bialowieza forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site that sprawls across the border between Poland and Belarus and is home to rare European wood bison and many other species. Only a sixth of the forest is protected.
In March, the Polish government approved a tripling in the volume of wood to be harvested in a third of the unprotected forest, prompting the European Commission to send officials to inspect.
European Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio on Thursday announced a formal infringement procedure over "the possible breach" of EU environmental law in Poland's logging plan.
He said the Commission was in contact with the Polish authorities, which have a month to provide the information the regulators have requested. Once that is received, the Commission will decide on the next steps that could ultimately lead to court action and fines.
"Starting legal proceedings shows the Commission agrees that the Polish government violated the law when it decided to increase logging in Bialowieza," Agata Szafraniuk, a lawyer at non-governmental organization ClientEarth said.
Logging is part of a wider political standoff between Warsaw and Brussels. Since winning elections last year, Poland's conservative government has clashed with EU regulators on a range of issues, including freedom of speech and democracy as well as energy and environment issues.
As a nation heavily reliant on coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, Poland has for years struggled to accept EU climate policy on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Poland has argued that the logging expansion is a necessary measure to combat an infestation of bark beetles in the area.
Scientists dispute that claim, saying such outbreaks are part of the natural processes that shape the forest.
A spokesman for the Polish environment minister said he was waiting to receive documents from the Commission.
"For the time being it is difficult for us to provide detailed comment. We will continue our dialogue with the Commission," he said.
In Poland, the debate around logging in the Bialoweza forest has been fierce. Poles have become increasingly divided by the government's policies both at home and abroad, some drawing large protests in Warsaw and other major cities.
UNESCO last week issued a draft opinion, voicing concern about the forest's future. The U.N. body will in July decide whether it needs to officially list the forest as in danger.
(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)