Inside a Pristine, Fairy-Tale Forest
Nikolaj Szpakowicz has a lot to answer for.
It was he, with a single shot from his poacher's gun, who killed the last wild European bison here in 1919, putting an end to 2 million years of history.
The winter was hard - five years of war and revolution had ravaged the land - and Nikolaj was hungry. Bang!
An animal that had roamed the forests of Europe since time immemorial, whose unmistakable profile shoulders its way through the earliest of mankind's cave paintings, had reached the end of the line.
But the woods where that last bison lived, here on the border of Poland and Belarus, remain intact as the last existing stretch of primeval forest in Europe. As I traveled across a changing region, I came here for a glimpse of timeless Europe. On a continent where the constant press of a growing population has wiped out most of the woodland, the Bialowieza Forest today doubtless looks much as it did 8,000 years ago.
Now the bison are back, reintroduced from stock that had survived in zoos. Some 500 of these neolithic juggernauts lumber through the undergrowth, though they are rarely seen.
This is not just because bison are shy beasts. It is also because practically nobody is allowed into the heart of the forest, the so-called "strict reserve," where even professional researchers are permitted to explore only in limited numbers and for limited periods.
The park authorities are following in a long tradition. Bialowieza has stayed the way it is precisely because the kings of Poland declared it their hunting reserve - protected by royal edict - as far back as the 16th century.
The forest even enjoyed protection during World War II from Hermann Goering, a leader of the Nazi Party and a primary architect of Hitler's police state, who was also a keen hunter.
This wasn't so great for the bison, of course. On one famous day in 1752, King August III Sas and his wife shot 42 head between them. But it kept the loggers and settlers at bay, and the forest is still virgin habitat - "of natural provenance," as park director Czeslaw Okolow puts it.
Keeping it that way basically means keeping people out. "Our first goal is protection, then access to researchers, and then very limited access to visitors," says Dr. Okolow briskly.
That policy allows ordinary tourists to follow a four-hour trail through the strict reserve as long as they go with a licensed guide.
As I walked through the damp forest one rainy evening, in the subaqueous gloom of approaching dusk, it was hard to resist the sensation that I had been transported into one of the Grimm Brothers' more unsettling fairy tales. The mossy dead trees lying and rotting where they had fallen; the thick green foliage of summer; the hush broken only by birdsong.
Wolf tracks in the muddy path, patches of undergrowth torn up by marauding wild boar, the occasional puddle of bison dung - everything spoke of an unseen presence.
"When we say what we have in this forest, we mean what we have found so far," says my guide, Miatek Piotrowski. "Our knowledge about it is expanding all the time."
What they have found so far, even apart from the bison, is remarkable: 235 types of birds, which is more than half of all the bird species in Europe; lynx, elk, boar, the practically extinct garlic toad, and all kinds of other animals large and small.
Defending this natural wealth - which the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has declared a World Heritage Site - against visitors is straightforward enough. But Okolow is worried about less-direct impacts, especially air pollution, which he says has already wiped out two sorts of lichens "that we know of. There may be other effects we haven't noticed yet."
Okolow has persuaded the Bialowieza village authorities to switch from a coal-powered heating system to a cleaner oil-fired plant, but he hasn't had the same success with the nearby, and much larger, town of Hajnowka.
"There isn't any money," Okolow complains. "And at a time of economic transition [as Poland emerges from communism], environmental protection is not a budget priority."
This disregard for the environment is evident throughout much of Eastern Europe and Russia, where chemicals and fuels like brown coal, long outlawed in Western Europe, are still used.
While driving through Poland, however, I found that unleaded gas is now available, indicating a burgeoning public concern for environmental standards. In Germany all gasoline is unleaded, and in France the government is boosting taxes on diesel to discourage its use.
While ruing his own financial difficulties, Okolow is happy about similar problems across the border in Belarus. There, the economic crisis has stalled a major drainage project at the forest's edge that would lower ground-water levels in the national park and harm the plant life.
The fact that the Belarussians have authority over any of the forest at all bothers Okolow.
Belarussian border guards have built a frontier fence through their bit of the forest, which prevents the bison on either side from meeting. And on the Belarussian side of the fence, the park is under the control of President Alexander Lukashenko, who sells licenses to shoot bison.
"The best solution," says Okolow, as proud of his park as he is undiplomatic, "would be for the whole forest to be in Poland."
* The first three articles in this series ran on July 28, 30, and 31. In Tuesday's paper, staff writer Peter Ford drives down the E-30, Europe's key transcontinental road, and notes the East's dependence on the West for manufactured goods. For an interactive version of this series, see the Monitor's Web site (www.csmonitor.com).