European Commission fights for rare Polish wetland
Mega-expressway may threaten endangered birds.
Conflicts between environmental goals and construction work may be a dime a dozen. But it isn't very often that the European Commission threatens a government with a court injunction to make road workers step down in favour of preserving nature.
That's what's happening in Poland, in a fight over a highway bypass due to be blasted through the Rospuda valley: a forested area home to a unique wetland system, many rare orchid and moss species, and endangered birds such as cranes and white-tailed eagles.
The bypass is supposed to upgrade an expressway through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, called Via Baltica, which links Warsaw and Helsinki. The 260-million-euro project, due to be completed by 2010, is considered economically vital for the poor northwestern part of Poland. But environmentalists say the expressway threatens to seriously damage a nature reserve designated as a 'special protection area' under the European Union's wild-bird directive.
When in February Polish authorities gave road contractors the green light, the nation was moved to protest. Several scientific bodies have lodged complaints, among them the biology faculty of the University of Warsaw.
Despite a warning that the European Commission issued last December, roadworks and clearing for the project began two weeks ago. "We had to accelerate our normal procedure, because something irreplaceable was about to be destroyed," says Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for the European Commission's environment directorate. On 28 February, the European Commission threatened to file an injunction at the European Court of Justice if Poland failed to respond within one week, and construction activity was suspended.
The Polish government has responded, but says their road does not violate European law. Poland is "open to dialogue with the European Commission", says a spokesman for the ministry. It is unclear if and when construction will resume.
Rospuda valley contains "a rare mosaic of unspoilt habitats", the Commission says. One of these habitats is a uniquely preserved groundwater-fed mire or fen, once typical of many lowland regions in central Europe.
"Human settlement and agriculture have turned most of Europe's fens into skeletons," says Hans Joosten, a mire ecologist at the University of Greifswald in Germany, and secretary general of the International Mire Conservation Group. Joosten is currently drafting a report on request of the European Commission about the mire's ecological value. "Rospuda is the last fen in central Europe that has remained almost pristine. It shows us how such ecosystems have evolved in the last thousand years," he says.
"Rospuda valley is probably the last reference system [of its type] in Europe for restoration ecologists," agrees Wiktor Kotowski, president of Save Wetlands, a Polish environmental group.
Scientists find it hard to predict exactly how harmful the road would have been for the valley. But they do know that it would have reduced breeding areas for already rare bird species. "In the long run [such a road] might destroy the water cycle and thus the whole ecosystem," says Joosten.
Nature conservation has little priority in Poland, says Kotowski. "Most people don't understand that we either have to protect our heritage or we will lose it." Instead of choosing an alternative route, Poland had offered to compensate the damage by planting trees, creating ponds and restoring wetlands. But the European Commission considered these measures "weak and unconvincing".
If Poland continues road works in the protected site without Brussels's permission, the European Commission says the next step would be to take the case before the European Court of Justice.