ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The tensions between the European Union and Poland are playing out right now in a fight over trees and bison. Brussels isn't happy with Warsaw's populist government. Poland's leaders have tried to limit judicial independence. And this week, they rejected an order from the EU's highest court to stop logging a protect forest. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The air is rife with mosquitoes here in Bialowieza Forest, which spans 350,000 acres in Poland and Belarus. The rich canopy is home to many endangered species, including the European bison. Polish journalist and naturalist Adam Wajrak says the forest's survival depends not only on the live trees towering overhead but on the many dead ones underfoot.
ADAM WAJRAK: Look at there, here. You see; this is a little spruce growing on the body of dead spruce. This is very often what happens.
NELSON: Wajrak shows me more.
WAJRAK: If you look under the bark, there's a lot of beetles, a lot of spiders - everything, whatever you want. You know, and this is how it works - why I compare the Bialowieza Forest to a coral reef - because in coral reef, a lot of life is based also on the dead corals. So this works like that.
NELSON: But the Polish government says this natural cycle is out of whack because of a bark beetle infestation that officials warn could decimate the forest. Mariusz Agiejczyk is deputy chief at the regional office of State Forests.
MARIUSZ AGIEJCZYK: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: He blames the beetle proliferation on global warming and a past reduction in logging and says foresters rather than Mother Nature are best able to stop it. His agency told loggers they can cut down three times the number of trees in the forest compared to last year. Most of those being cut are spruce trees, which are vulnerable to the beetle infestation.
AGIEJCZYK: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: Agiejczyk says foresters have been here almost a century and, quote, "look how beautiful this forest is - enough to get UNESCO certification. So any criticism of our logging is kind of absurd." But environmental activists from around Europe are trying to block the loggers.
Joanna Bienkowska, who is with Greenpeace, has moved into a camp near the forest with other protesters. The 30-year-old Warsaw resident says has her days are spent looking for giant harvesting machines used by the loggers.
JOANNA BIENKOWSKA: We don't know where are harvesters, so we are looking for them. They are moving, so sometimes we don't know where they are.
NELSON: Another activist, Marcin Skopinksi, says he recently was part of a human blockade that chained itself to a harvester to try and stop it from cutting up to 200 trees a day.
MARCIN SKOPINKSI: During the patrols, I've seen a lot of places where logging is taking place, and it's a very sad thing to see. Like, some of the parts are looking totally like the storm came in or like some huge destruction happened.
NELSON: The next day, he and Bienkowska drive out with the NPR team in search of more harvesters. They say it's hard to find them, as the armed Polish foresters are getting better at keeping people away. On this day, we are stopped by a forester, one of scores assigned here from around Poland.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: My interpreter tries to explain who we are, but the forester orders us to leave. So we try another path...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: ...This time of foot. After 10 minutes, we spot a European bison standing in the trees. We never find the harvester, although we can hear it faintly in the distance. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bialowieza Forest, Poland.
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