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Climate change clouds ancient forest
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Europe's last ancient forest, home to its largest herd of bison, faces an uncertain future because of climate change, but residents worry that tougher conservation efforts will damage the local economy.

The 150,000-hectare Bialowieza Primeval Forest, which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, is one of the largest unpopulated woodlands in Europe. It has been a World Heritage Site since 1979.

On the Polish side of the border, residents oppose plans to extend the protected zone of this unique habitat, which is under threat from rising temperatures and declining rainfall.

Warsaw wants to enlarge the area's national park, which occupies less than a fifth of the Polish part of the forest. It has offered up to 100 million zlotys (US$33.61 million) to be shared among nine communities that would be affected.

However, the 2,400 residents of Bialowieza district are skeptical. "You may think we are fools not willing to take the money," Mayor Albert Litwinowicz said. "But it will only go for green investments, while we need roads."

Forests provide a significant part of Bialowieza's income, which would be halved if the area is incorporated into the national park, Litwinowicz said.

Bialowieza district would be fully incorporated into the national park under the current proposal.

"Building anything in the national park would be almost impossible and we want to develop better transport ... and other infrastructure," Litwinowicz said.

Meanwhile, signs of climate change that could threaten the forest have become more evident.

"The average annual temperature has risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. This is a lot for a primeval forest," Elzbieta Malzahn of the Forest Research Institute said.

"There is less rain in the summer, winters are milder and end sooner, prompting vegetation to start earlier."

Bialowieza is home to 800 wild European bison, the continent's heaviest land animals, weighing up to 1 ton each. So far, the changes have not endangered the bison because mammals adapt easily to a changing environment, scientists say.

To extend the protected area, the government needs the approval of local authorities. "For years local people have opposed plans to enlarge the park and we are now presenting a program that shows they can go on operating with an enlarged park," Deputy Environment Minister, Janusz Zaleski, said.

Mayor Litwinowicz said he was considering holding a referendum among residents on the enlargement scheme. "If where we live is so unique for the whole of Europe, why shouldn't the residents benefit rather than suffer?" he said. "Personally, I am against it, but the people will decide."

(China Daily July 30, 2009)

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