Białowieża Forest (Belarusian: Белавежская пушча, Biełaviežskaja Pušča; Polish: Puszcza Białowieska Polish pronunciation: [ˈpuʂt͡ʂa ˌbʲawɔˈvʲɛska] ( listen)) is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The forest is home to 800 European bison, Europe's heaviest land animal. UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) designated the Polish Biosphere Reserve Białowieża in 1976 and the Belarusian Biosphere Reserve Belovezhskaya Puschcha in 1993. In 2015, the Belarusian Biosphere Reserve occupied the area of 216,200 ha (2,162 km2; 835 sq mi), subdivided into transition, buffer and core zones. The forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation. The World Heritage Committee by its decision of June 2014 approved the extension of the UNESCO World Heritage site “Belovezhskaya Pushcha/Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”, which became “Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”. It straddles the border between Poland (Podlaskie Voivodeship) and Belarus (Brest and Grodno voblasts), and is 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Brest, Belarus and 62 kilometres (39 miles) southeast of Białystok, Poland. The Białowieża Forest World Heritage site covers a total area of 141,885 ha (1,418.85 km2; 547.82 sq mi). Since the border between the two countries runs through the forest, there is a border crossing available for hikers and cyclists.
The Belarusian name is Biełaviežskaja pušča (Белавежская пушча), although both the Belarusian authorities and UNESCO use the original Russian name Belovezhskaya pushcha (Беловежская пуща) from before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
On the Polish side, part of the Białowieża Forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park (Polish: Białowieski Park Narodowy), with an area of about 105 km2 (41 sq mi). There is also the Białowieża Glade (Polish: Polana Białowieska), with a complex of buildings once owned by the tsars of Russia during the Partitions of Poland. At present, a hotel and restaurant with a car park is located there. Guided tours into the strictly protected areas of the park can be arranged on foot, bike or by horse-drawn carriage. Approximately 120,000–150,000 tourists visit the Polish part of the forest annually (about 10,000 of them are from other countries). Among the attractions are birdwatching with local ornithologists, the chance to observe rare birds, pygmy owl observations, watching bison in their natural environment, and sledge as well as carriage rides, with a bonfire. Expert nature guides can also be found in the nearby urban centres. Tours are possible all year round. The popular village of Białowieża lies within the forest. Białowieża means "the white tower" in Old Polish.
On the Belarusian side, the forest is protected as the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park with an area of 1,771 km2 (684 sq mi). The core, strictly protected, area covers 157 km2 (61 sq mi), the buffer zone 714 km2 (276 sq mi), and the transition zone 900 km2 (350 sq mi); the National Park and World Heritage Site comprises 876 km2 (338 sq mi). The Belovezhskaya pushcha headquarters at Kamyanyuki include laboratory facilities and a zoo where European bison (reintroduced into the park in 1929), konik (a semi-wild horse), wild boar, Eurasian elk and other indigenous animals may be viewed in enclosures of their natural habitat. A new attraction there is a New Year's museum with Ded Moroz (the East Slavic counterpart of Father Christmas).
The entire area of northeastern Europe was originally covered by ancient woodland similar to that of the Białowieża Forest. Until about the 14th century, travel through the woodland was limited to river routes; roads and bridges appeared much later. Limited hunting rights were granted throughout the forest in the 14th century. In the 15th century the forest became a property of king Władysław II Jagiełło. A wooden manor in Białowieża became his refuge during a plague pandemic in 1426. The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538, when a document issued by Sigismund I instituted the death penalty for poaching a bison. The King also built a new wooden hunting manor in a village of Białowieża, which became the namesake for the whole complex. Since Białowieża means the "white tower", the corresponding Puszcza Białowieska translates as the "forest of the white tower". The Tower of Kamyenyets on the Belarusian side, built of red brick, is also referred to as the White Tower (Belaya Vezha) even though it was never white, perhaps taking the name from the pushcha.
The forest was declared a hunting reserve in 1541 to protect bison. In 1557, the forest charter was issued, under which a special board was established to examine forest usage. In 1639, King Vladislaus IV issued the "Białowieża royal forest decree" (Ordynacja Puszczy J.K. Mości leśnictwa Białowieskiego). The document freed all peasants living in the forest in exchange for their service as osocznicy, or royal foresters. They were also freed of taxes in exchange for taking care of the forest. The forest was divided onto 12 triangular areas (straże) with a centre in Białowieża.
Until the reign of King John II Casimir, the forest was mostly unpopulated. However, in the late 17th century, several small villages were established for development of local iron-ore deposits and tar production. The villages were populated with settlers from Masovia and Podlaskie and many of them still exist.
After the Partitions of Poland, Tsar Paul I turned all the foresters into serfs and handed them over to various Russian aristocrats and generals along with the parts of forest where they lived. Also, a large number of hunters were able to enter the forest, as all protection was abolished. Following this, the number of bison fell from more than 500 to fewer than 200 in 15 years. However, in 1801, Tsar Alexander I reintroduced the reserve and hired a small number of peasants to protect the animals, and by the 1830s there were 700 bison. However, most of the foresters (500 out of 502) took part in the November Uprising of 1830–31, and their posts were abolished, leading to a breakdown of protection.
Tsar Alexander II visited the forest in 1860 and decided to re-establish the protection of bison. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynx. Between 1888 and 1917, the Russian tsars owned all of primaeval forest, which became the royal hunting reserve. The tsars sent bison as gifts to various European capitals, while at the same time populating the forest with deer, elk and other animals imported from around the empire. The last major tsarist hunt took place in 1912.
During World War I the forest suffered heavy losses. The German army seized the area in August 1915 and started to hunt the animals. During three years of German occupation, 200 kilometres (124 miles) of railway tracks were laid in the forest to support the local industry. Three lumber mills were built, in Hajnówka, Białowieża and Gródek. Up to 25 September 1915, at least 200 bison were killed, and an order was issued forbidding hunting in the reserve. However, German soldiers, poachers and Soviet marauders continued the slaughter until February 1919 when the area was captured by the Polish army. The last bison had been killed just a month earlier. Thousands of deer and wild boar had also been shot.
After the Polish–Soviet War in 1921, the core of the forest was declared a National Reserve. In 1923, Professor Józef Paczoski, a pioneer of the science of phytosociology, became a scientific manager of the forest reserves in the Białowieża Forest. He carried out detailed studies of the structure of forest vegetation there.
In 1923 it was known that only 54 bison survived in zoos all around the world, none of them in Poland. In 1929, a small herd of four was bought by the Polish state from various zoos and from the Western Caucasus (where the bison was to become extinct just a few years later). These animals were of the slightly different Caucasian subspecies (Bison bonasus caucasicus). Most of the forest was declared a national park in 1932.
The reintroduction proved successful, and in 1939 there were 16 bison in Białowieża National Park. Two of them, from the zoo in Pszczyna, were descendants of a pair from the forest given to the Duke of Pszczyna by Tsar Alexander II in 1865.
In 1939 the local inhabitants of Polish ethnicity were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union and replaced by Soviet forest workers. In 1941 the forest was occupied by Germans and the Russian Soviet inhabitants were also expelled. Hermann Göring planned to create the largest hunting reserve in the world there. After July 1941 the forest became a refuge for both Polish and Soviet partisans and Nazi authorities organised mass executions. A few graves of people who were killed by the Gestapo can still be seen in the forest. In July 1944 the area was liberated by the Red Army. Withdrawing Wehrmacht troops demolished the historic Białowieża hunting manor.
After the war, part of the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian SSR of the Soviet Union. The Soviet part was put under public administration while Poland reopened the Białowieża National Park in 1947.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha was protected under Decision No. 657 of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union, 9 October 1944; Order No. 2252-P of the USSR Council of Ministers, 9 August 1957; and Decree No. 352 of the Byelorussian SSR Council of Ministers, 16 September 1991.
The forest contains a number of large, ancient pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur), some of which are individually named. Trunk circumferences are measured at breast height, 130 cm (51 in) above the ground.
Some 84% of the 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of Polish forest is outside the national park; almost half of all the wood in the forest is dead — 10 times more than in managed forests — with half the 12,000 species depend on decaying logs, including the near-threatened beetle Cucujus cinnaberinus; traditional forest management would remove the dead wood, as a fire risk. In 2011, Zdzisław Szkiruć, director of the Białowieża National Park, told British newspaper The Guardian that cutting and replanting allows for re-establishment of the forest in 50 years, rather than the 300–400 years that nature would require; environmentalist Janusz Korbel argued that the unique nature of the primeval forest, however, demands a lighter hand of management. Andrzej Kraszewski, Poland's Environment Minister from February 2010 to November 2011, sought to increase protection over the whole forest, starting with a more modest 12,000–14,000-hectare (30,000–35,000-acre) expansion, against opposition from the local community and the Forestry Service.
Environmentalists say that logging is threatening the flora and fauna in the forest, including species of rare birds, such as the white-backed woodpecker, who lost 30% of their population in forestry-managed areas in the 1990s and 2000s. Poland's state forestry board claims the logging is for protection and for ecological reasons, protecting against the European spruce bark beetle. From 2012, the amount of wood that can be extracted by foresters annually was reduced from about 120,000 m3 (4,200,000 cu ft) to just 48,500 m3 (1,700,000 cu ft) and most of it is sold locally, mainly as firewood.
On 25 March 2016, Jan Szyszko, Poland's Environment Minister, former forester and forestry academic, announced that he would approve a tripling of logging in the forest, from the 2012–21 limit of 63,000 m3 (2,200,000 cu ft) — almost exhausted at the time — to 188,000 m3 (6,600,000 cu ft), again described as being necessary to combat an infestation of the bark beetle. Robert Cyglicki, head of Greenpeace Polska, however, argued that logging to fight the bark beetle would "bring more damage than benefits", gathering more than 120,000 signatures to petition Prime Minister Beata Szydło to reverse Szyszko's move. Greenpeace also said the logging could trigger the EU to launch punitive procedures against Poland for violating its Natura 2000 programme, though Szyszko claims that the logging plans would not apply to strictly protected areas, and claims that, rather than being 8,000 years old, as scientists claim, parts of the forest had been created by an "enterprising hand of man" on lands that centuries ago included fields of wheat and millet.
Large-scale logging started in 2017. The Polish government has ignored pleas from UNESCO to stop logging the old-growth parts of the forest, as well as a court order of the European Court of Justice to halt the logging activities.
The forest is mentioned throughout Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us (2007), which investigates places that have been abandoned or left alone and imagines what they would be like if Earth's human population suddenly disappeared.
Jurgis Rudkus, the Lithuanian protagonist of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, is said to have been born to a family of peasants in "that part of Lithuania known as Brelovicz" which could be interpreted as the Białowieża area.
British historian Simon Schama dedicates several chapters of his book Landscape and Memory (1995) to the Białowieża Forest.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Białowieża Forest.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Białowieża National Park.|