It's Open Season on Trees in Poland

Residents in Polish cities such as Kraków have witnessed widespread tree clearing following a controversial change in law that previously required private landowners to seek permission before removing trees. (Photo: Dan Foy/flickr)

Poland has a complicated relationship with trees.

Home to what’s undoubtedly the most famously off-kilter stand of pines on Earth and the only International Emmy Award-winning children's TV series starring a tree with magical powers, Poland is also where you'll find Europe's most celebrated oak ... of 2017, anyways. With state-owned forests covering roughly 30 percent of the Central European nation, Poland is a place where trees are revered and have deep roots in cultural mythology. Yet the country's government has no qualms with commencing large-scale logging operations in one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests, Białowieża forest in northeastern Poland.

The logging has become so acute in Białowieża — a UNESCO world heritage site, the only one in the country — that scientists and environmentalists fear that the area's ecosystem could be near collapse. "At some point, there will be a collapse, and if and when it happens, it's gone forever," Tomasz Wesolowski, a forest biologist at the University of Wroclaw, tells the Guardian. "No amount of money can bring it back."

The European Union's top court issued an order for Poland to halt the logging, but the Polish government says it will continue the practice while it prepares a response to the court order. The EU has asked the European Court of Justice to intervene again — and quickly, as these cases can take years to resolve.

In the meantime, the Polish canopy, both urban and rural, is under threat.

When an individual tree might stand as a painful reminder of the past, there’s a good chance it will still be fiercely protected. Case in point is a mighty oak planted by the Nazis in the southeastern town of Jaslo in 1942 to commemorate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. In 2009, the mayor of Jaslo wanted to do away with the oak to make way for a traffic roundabout and was met with local opposition. “It's a historic curiosity. What is the oak really guilty of? It's not the tree's fault that it was planted here to honor the biggest criminal and enemy of Poland,” said one Jaslo resident.

This said, Polish environmentalists and ordinary tree-loving citizens are unnerved and angered by a new amendment to an existing law that undoes longstanding rules requiring landowners to seek permission before cutting trees on their property. Under the change in law, it is no longer compulsory for landowners to replant trees, pay compensation or even alert local authorities to any tree-felling activities, be it a single sacred linden tree or an entire swath of urban forest on privately held land. Essentially, it’s open season on trees in this traditionally tree-respecting nation.

As reported by the Guardian, the law — named “Szyszko’s law” in not-so-complimentary honor of forester and current Minister of the Environment Jan Szyszko — was enacted on Jan. 1 and, already, those rallying against it have observed an alarming proliferation of “newly cleared spaces in cities, towns and parts of the countryside."

As the Guardian explains, Szyszko, a member of Poland’s ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), is “openly disdainful of environmental campaigners and mainstream ecologists, espousing an environmental philosophy that critics describe as geared towards sacrificing Poland’s natural resources for the sake of economic development and the financial interests of foresters.”

The tree-cutting business is booming

It’s unclear exactly how many trees have been felled across Poland since the beginning of the year, given that landowners are not required to report tree-cutting activities to local authorities as was customary in the past. However, as the owner of one tree-cutting firm explains to the Guardian, business has been booming ever since the law was altered. “Before the new law, we would receive between five and 10 inquiries daily,” he explains. “But in January and February, we would sometimes receive 200 inquiries in a single day.”

Likewise, environmental organizations have experienced a dramatic uptick in complaints. “We used to receive around one telephone call a day from people concerned about trees being cut down in their area,” says Paweł Szypulski of Greenpeace Poland. “But suddenly we had two telephones ringing all day long.”

As the Guardian notes, while it is illegal for landowners to embark on commercial development projects on their newly tree-less — or tree-scarce — land, there is nothing now that prevents them from turning around and selling it to developers.

“The law allows any tree on private property to be cut down by the owner, even if it is 200 years old,” Joanna Mazgajska of the Institute of Zoology at the Polish Academy of Sciences tells the Guardian. “Many private citizens regard trees on their land as a nuisance. They don’t report, they just cut — it’s barbarism.”

Białowieża Forest, Poland/Belarus
It's not just trees on private land that are vulnerable: Long off limits to large-scale logging, the Białowieża Forest, an ancient woodland straddling Poland and Belarus, is now open for clearing under Environment Minister Jan Szyszko. (Photo: Frank Vassen/flickr)

The rise of tree stump activism

Not surprisingly, the tree-cutting bonanza has been greeted by impassioned grassroots activists, both establishment campaigners as well as outraged new factions including a social media-savvy clutch of women that go by the Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps. Based in Poland’s second largest city, the Vistula River-straddling cultural hub of Kraków, the women are expressing their collective outrage by posting photos of themselves on social media sitting on the stumps of newly felled trees while breastfeeding.

Meanwhile, in the city of Kielce, a plot to replant oaks in an area that’s experienced widespread tree-clearing has been blocked due to the fact that “such an initiative could be regarded as involving our city in an anti-government protest.”

“We just want an end to this catastrophic process, which is harming us and our children,” Cecylia Malik, founder of Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps, tells the Guardian. “The scale is really horrible.”

In the United States, rules and restrictions regarding tree removal on private land vary wildly from state to state, city to city, municipality to municipality. As such, landowners should be mindful before clearing any trees as size, age, health, location and species often dictate local tree-removal laws.

In Atlanta, for example, tree-removal regulations are rather strict. Special permits are generally required, particularly for trees with a diameter of six inches or more or pine trees with a diameter greater than 12 inches. Cities like Jacksonville, Florida, have similar regulations that require a permit for trees over four feet tall and three-and-a-half feet in circumference to be cleared from private property. It's much the same in Washington, D.C., where the removal of trees between 44 and 99.90 inches requires a permit; removing any tree, no matter the size, located in the public right of way between the street and sidewalk requires a special permit.

Some cities do not require landowners to obtain permission prior to clearing trees with the exception of certain “heritage” species that are rare, vulnerable, old or culturally significant. In Sacramento, the cutting of oak trees requires a special permit. In Boise, it’s the elm that receives special protection. However, in Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of a state famed for it’s fragrant magnolia tree, M. grandiflora can be cleared by landowners without a permit.

Whatever the case, you'd be hard pressed to find a jurisdiction in the U.S. that has tree-removal laws quite as aggressively chop-happy as those in Poland right now. Here's hoping it stays that way.