Poland vows to keep logging ancient forest despite EU court ruling

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland said on Monday it would press on with logging the country’s primeval Bialowieza forest in defiance of an injunction by the European Union’s top court, saying it needed to cut down trees to defeat insect pests.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered Poland last week to immediately stop large-scale logging in the ancient forest, one of many cases that has pitted the nationalist, eurosceptic government in Warsaw against the bloc.

Poland said it would keep logging in the forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus and is home to European bison as well as rare birds.

“We are acting in line with the EU laws,” Environment Minister Jan Szyszko told a news conference, defending logging as part of Poland’s wider legal obligations to protect the forest which is suffering the biggest beetle outbreak in decades.

“We have to fulfill the protective measures plan and this is what we are doing,” Konrad Tomaszewski, a representative of the state forest management agency, told the same news conference.

The logging has triggered protests by environmentalists and raised concern in the European Commission, which has also started legal action against Poland over its judiciary reforms.

The EU’s executive Commission earlier this year sued Poland at the European Court of Justice over the logging.Last week’s injunction was an interim decision in a case that could take years to resolve.

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Environmentalists say the beetle is only a pretext for Szyszko. They argue that he favors logging because it brings more revenues to the local community and helps to boost support for the ruling Law and Justice party.

Szyszko approved tripling of the quota of wood that can be harvested in one of three administrative areas of the Bialowieza Forest in March 2016.

Following Poland’s reaction to injunction, the European Commission said Warsaw must comply with the no-logging decision.

Should Poland eventually lose the main case at the court, it could be fined more than 4 million euros ($4.71 million) and risk penalties of up to 300,000 euros for every day it defies the ruling.

It was unclear if Poland could face penalties for non-compliance with the injunction.

“According to our knowledge, this is a precedent. No EU state has ignored an interim measure before,” Katarzyna Kosciesza from non-governmental organization ClientEarth said.

Szyszko said he is not worried about possible EU fines for non-compliance. He estimated that a halt to the protective measures could cost 2 billion zlotys ($552.03 million) in damage to nature, without elaborating.

Szyszko brought a jar of Bialowieza beetles to the news conference, saying they were enough to kill a thousand trees.

But non-government organizations including Greenpeace and Wild Poland Foundation say the vast majority of trees felled so far were unaffected by the beetles.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, editing by Alister Doyle