Forest gumption. In Poland’s ancient Carpathian woodlands, an ‘invisible national park’ promises hope and healing 

Posted: Fri, 12 Apr 2024 18:11:56 UTC+3
The Invisible Turnicki National Park

Story by Joanna Kozlowska for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Ghosts nestle in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains between Poland and Ukraine. South of Przemyśl — the quiet Polish cathedral city turned way-station for hundreds of thousands fleeing Russia’s 2022 invasion — abandoned villages lie scattered on the forest’s edge, silent witnesses of an earlier Ukrainian exodus. Borysławka, Grąziowa, Jamna — each name conjures up memories of a once-diverse land, a messy mosaic of cultures and faiths shattered by rounds of savage violence. 

In 1939 came the Nazi occupation. Then, between 1943 and 1945, militant Ukrainian nationalists massacred tens of thousands of Poles, Jews, Czechs, and others in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, now part of western Ukraine. The Polish underground retaliated, killing upwards of 10,000 Ukrainians. Later, Poland’s post-war Communist government and the Soviet authorities agreed on a forced transfer program that saw whole villages emptied at gunpoint and their Ukrainian residents deported east. 

The Przemyśl Foothills. Makowa, February 2024.

Yet there is also another ghostly presence, heralding hope rather than despair. Since 2020, nature lovers from all over Poland have banded together to protect the unique flora and fauna of the Przemyśl Foothills: broad swathes of dark, ancient woodland, home to colossal pines and beeches, harboring brown bears, wolves, lynx, wildcats, and birds of prey. Undeterred by years of official inaction and intensive logging, these activists have proclaimed the area an “invisible national park.” 

Efforts to protect this corner of the Carpathians date back decades, explains Marcin Mystkowski, the activist who coined the slogan. 

In 1997, a draft decree on the establishment of Turnicki National Park made its way to the Polish environment minister’s desk, awaiting a sign-off that never came. (Smaller nature reserves already exist, including one with that same name, but environmentalists consider them inadequate, as they cover only about three percent of the area’s old-growth Carpathian Forest.) The activists behind today’s campaign blame logging and hunting interests — both central to the region’s recent history — for scuppering the initiative. 

“When I understood that the idea of the park dates so far back, I thought it would be good to break with the language of unfulfilled things. If, for dozens of years, the park has been studied and called for, then it is not so much ‘proposed’ as invisible,” Mystkowski says.  

Mystkowski founded Kwitnąca Otulina, a volunteer network named after the Polish words for “blossoming” and “buffer zone,” as in those around protected natural areas. The word otulina suggests an act of sheathing or swaddling, a gesture of love and protection. 

A roadside cross on the way to the abandoned village of Borysławka. Rybotycze, February 2024.


‘Only invisible to officials’

According to Mystkowski, the network’s efforts to promote the “Invisible Turnicki National Park” have helped revitalize the campaign for an official park. 

“Local communities are now well aware that the proposal exists [and] that people across Poland are speaking up for this place and this form of protection. The park is only invisible to officials,” he says as he and his team bustle about a traditional wooden tavern in the village of Rybotycze. They are setting up for a talk that caps off a busy day at the Turnicki Winter Festival — one of Kwitnąca Otulina’s many events aimed at promoting the park proposal and showing off the Przemyśl Foothills’ beauty. 

On a mild Saturday in February, the area’s hills shine a russet gold, even as a chill hangs in the air and gnarled trees stand bare along the banks of the Wiar River. About three dozen visitors have gathered in Rybotycze for a weekend of winter swimming and wildlife tracking in the dense, sunless forest that nurtures some of Europe’s most majestic wildlife. 

A deer skull, picked clean, lies on a bed of moss close to a deep ravine that local wolves use to trap their prey. As night falls, eagles and Ural owls hoot in the distance. 

Yet there are more signs that not all is well. As we set off into the woods at night, hoping to glimpse these elusive birds, we soon find ourselves knee-deep in mud. Combine harvesters have gouged out the verges of a once-quiet trail, tearing out vegetation and leaving heavy rains to do the rest. Stacks of felled pines lie to the side, waiting for Poland’s state-owned forestry agency to ship them out for processing. 

A nighttime trek through the Turnicki forest near Rybotycze. February 2024.
Ornithologist Jakub Wyka displays an owl wing during a nighttime hike through the forest near Rybotycze. Wyka used a recording of owl sounds to try and summon the elusive birds. February 2024.

“An area that all Poles should treasure, a unique forest that we should bequeath to future generations, is being turned into wooden boards,” says Piotr Klub, a local environmentalist and trained forester.

Klub argues that Polish State Forests, the agency that manages more than 17 million acres of woodland across the country, has systematically destroyed the unique Carpathian Forest ecosystem for years. According to him, the agency even cuts down healthy, centuries-old trees despite never turning a profit from logging in the area. The Polish Environmental Ministry’s own financial data lend some support to this view. From 2010 to 2017, Polish State Forests relied on cash transfers from the agency’s more profitable branches to keep the local logging industry afloat. Klub attributes this to the Turnicki forest’s remoteness, steep hills, and lack of infrastructure. 

The agency has repeatedly argued that its logging practices focus on felling sick or old trees, allowing sunlight to reach lower parts of the forest and stimulating new growth. Polish environmentalists and many academics dispute these claims, arguing that healthy forests should be left to regulate themselves. 

Some activists allege that the state agency’s interventionist practices are profit-driven. According to its 2022 annual report, Polish State Forests recorded an unprecedented 13.5 billion Polish złoty (approximately $3.08 billion at the time) in revenue from timber sales, while spending less than 0.5 percent of that figure on environmental protection. 

In October 2020, more than 200 Polish natural scientists signed an open letter urging Polish State Forests to scale back logging in the Carpathian Forest, calling Warsaw’s inaction a “deep crisis and failure of the authorities.” The scientists argued that logging led to environmental destruction, worsened the Earth’s climate crisis, and impeded the forest’s natural ability to retain moisture, increasing drought risk.


More than a resource

Had Klub’s life taken a different turn, he might now work for Polish State Forests himself. The environmentalist describes a childhood spent with his forester father in a cabin in the Polish southwest. The family vacationed near the Przemyśl Foothills, and young Piotr would sit silently in awe as they drove through the fairytale forests near the town of Arłamów.

Years later, when he was a university student, Klub came across a column in a forestry magazine ridiculing “dumb eco-activists” for campaigning for a new national park. “When I realized it was the same area that filled me with so much wonder as a child, I decided I’d like to be one such deranged eco-activist myself,” he says, laughing. 

In 2015, Klub moved to the Przemyśl Foothills and started cataloging old-growth trees for the Natural Heritage Foundation (Fundacja Dziedzictwo Przyrodnicze). The foundation published Klub’s report last May, detailing and assessing proposals for an additional 25 national parks in Poland. Klub insists that an expanded Turnicki National Park is “by far the most urgent” and should include the most precious remnants of the old-growth Carpathian Forest that still lack protection.

Piotr Klub, a trained forester and environmentalist. Grąziowa, February 2024.

According to environmentalists, the intensive logging in the region is symptomatic of a recent tendency in Polish political culture to view nature as primarily a resource for human use. 

In 2017, the ruling Law and Justice party resumed large-scale logging in the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site spanning the border between Poland and Belarus that’s home to some of Europe’s last remaining swathes of primeval woodland. (Warsaw backed down after the European Court of Justice ruled in April 2018 that the move breached E.U. environmental laws.) The former government also doubled down on regulating Poland’s rivers, declaring them “waterways” to be harnessed for economic development. Then, in 2021, it transferred responsibility for water management from the Environmental Ministry to the Infrastructure Ministry.

These actions drew an increasingly strong public response. Activists from across Poland camped out for months in Białowieża, attempting to document and sometimes sabotage the logging. For many Poles, the last straw came in 2022, when an environmental disaster killed more than half the fish in the country’s second-largest river, the Oder. 

Augustyn Mikos, who has worked with multiple Polish forest conservation NGOs, and Ewa Dąbrowska, of the environmental charity ClientEarth, both say that Warsaw needs to urgently implement E.U. laws that would give civil society a meaningful say in decision-making on environmental matters, through both public consultations and the courts. Although some 85 percent of Polish forests are public, there is no legal mechanism allowing citizens or NGOs to request changes to the state’s 10-year “Forest Management Plans.”

“It’s important that forest management is brought under genuine public oversight, that citizens have a real say — as the 1998 Aarhus Convention stipulates,” Mikos says, referencing E.U. legislation that gives the public broad rights to bring and be party to environmental protection lawsuits. Poland ratified the Aarhus Convention in 2003, but both Mikos and Dąbrowska say that Warsaw has so far failed to enforce it. 

A logging site near the abandoned village of Borysławka, where heavy equipment has torn up the forest floor. February 2024.


‘Make it a haven of life’

For now, the chainsaws have fallen silent in the Invisible Turnicki National Park. In January, the new government ordered Polish State Forests to halt or curtail logging in 10 of the country’s best-loved woodland areas. The so-called “logging moratorium” remains in force until June, and activists hope permanent measures will follow. More than 80 percent of Poles support the restrictions, according to a January Ipsos poll

Polish civil society pressured Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new pro-democracy government to take environmental action, says Mikos, who credits these groups with building the consensus on the need for stronger protections. Liberal Polish governments that preceded Law and Justice had a mixed environmental record. Experts, NGOs, and local residents have supported dozens of national park proposals, only to watch them languish in ministerial drawers — some for as long as 30 years. 

Klub and other environmentalists also believe that pressure from civil society is beginning to turn the tide. In early February, Deputy Environment Minister Mikołaj Dorożała announced plans to establish Poland’s first national park in 23 years. The Lower Oder Valley National Park will protect the wild tangle of peat bogs, meadows, lakes, and canals cradled between two arms of the Oder as it bifurcates on its way to the Baltic Sea. 

To some, the park’s creation feels like atonement for the mass death of fish and other wildlife in the summer of 2022. Last November, a Polish state auditor found that the disaster followed “years of inaction and mistakes” as the authorities failed to regulate the discharge of toxic industrial waste into the Oder River. The pollution drastically increased the water’s salinity and, coupled with low water levels and high temperatures, caused toxic algae to bloom.  

Agnieszka Szlauer-Łukaszewska, a hydrobiologist and one of the park’s key advocates, warns that the 2022 disaster might repeat itself any day. “Catastrophe is still hanging in the air,” she says. Jacek Engel of Poland’s Greenmind Foundation also argues that the mass dumping of waste from coal and copper mines in southwestern Poland remains the single biggest threat to the Oder. “Some of the Oder’s tributaries that mines have dumped waste into have higher salinity than the Baltic Sea,” Engel points out. 

An aerial view of a swan on the bank of the Oder River near the village of Górzyca. May 2023.
Dead fish float on the surface of the Oder River in the Lower Oder Valley National Park. August 2022.

While the planned national park won’t staunch the flow of industrial waste, Szlauer-Łukaszewska explains that it will protect a network of peat bogs and canals that serves as a natural filter and give shelter to fish and mollusks fleeing the pollution upstream. “When a disaster abates, all the surviving [wild]life will return to the main riverbed. That’s why it’s so important to preserve the land between the two Oders, and ensure the maintenance of appropriate oxygen conditions — to make it a haven of life for the river,” the hydrobiologist says. 

Similarly, Engel warns that creating a park on the lower Oder “will not save the river.” Addressing the wastewater discharge and halting the intensive regulation of rivers that hinders natural filtration processes are key, he says.

“A dead river can still flow through a national park,” underscores writer Robert Rient, who fronts a campaign to grant the Oder legal personhood, a status previously granted to various natural entities in Latin America, New Zealand, Australia, Spain, and elsewhere. 

The campaign’s draft bill would give the Oder a legal right to a free flow and freedom from pollution and set up a special committee of state and civil society representatives to represent the river in court and sue for damages on its behalf. Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk has publicly backed the initiative. 

“I want to stress that we’re not pushing for the Oder to be considered human,” Rient adds. “But when people consider how easy it is to grant a company, association, or foundation legal personhood, it really becomes quite shocking that no part of nature, no living being other than us, has yet become a legal subject [in Poland].”

Rient doesn’t expect the campaign to lead to imminent legal change and says his main focus is challenging narratives that present nature as a resource for human use. That was the goal of the March for the Oder, a campaign event that saw hundreds of participants walk sections of the river’s more than 937-kilometer (582-mile) length, from the Polish-Czech border to the Baltic Sea. “We all had one thing in common,” Rient recalls, “we want to have at least one clean river in Poland.” 

The remains of a deer on the Turnicki forest floor. Grąziowa, February 2024.


Sustainable transformation

In 2000, Poland gave local authorities veto power over any proposals to set up national parks wholly or partly situated on their territory. While all three Polish districts set to house the Lower Oder Valley park have backed the measure, the law appears to be the largest obstacle to protecting the Carpathian Forest. 

Mystkowski, the event organizer and founder of Kwitnąca Otulina, says strong opposition has come from the Bircza district — the site of a prominent branch of Polish State Forests. While logging in the area remains loss-making, the agency is a major employer, offering far higher wages than Polish national parks.  

According to Jakub Rok of the Wild Carpathians Initiative (Inicjatywa Dzikie Karpaty), a volunteer group that manned a “citizens’ blockade” of logging sites in the Carpathian Forest for more than 800 days between 2021 and 2023, the forestry agency wields a lot of informal power. “In Bircza, the local authority and the forest inspectorate are overlapping circles,” Rok claims. “Many residents fear publicly backing a national park [and] going against the local elite.”

In December 2021, local foresters blocked off the only road leading to the house of a Bircza teacher who had supported logging restrictions, according to Polish media reports. The teacher, Andrzej Zbrożek, was then repeatedly fined for crossing the barrier, though Polish courts have since voided nearly a dozen of these penalties. 

The district council, meanwhile, appears to have taken no action. A 2022 investigation by the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza referred to multiple district councilors who simultaneously held posts at Polish State Forests or had close family members who did. Others reportedly owned forestry or wood processing businesses. The Bircza district council did not respond to The Beet’s request for comment on Zbrożek’s case.

Activist Marcin Mystkowski (right) and other hikers follow lynx and wildcat tracks in the Turnicki forest. Grąziowa, February 2024.

Mystkowski argues that part of the problem is that proposals for a Turnicki National Park usually come from outsiders. (He, like Klub, was born in the southwest of Poland and now spends much of his time running a marketing agency in Warsaw.) Yet Rok argues that outsider status can be a blessing and a curse. “Speaking to residents, I often see that they need outsiders who can intervene, because the local power structures are powerful and effectively punish dissent,” he says. 

According to Rok, locals often call the Wild Carpathians Initiative to share concerns — for example, about the amount of wood they see taken out of the forest on trucks or the now-shelved proposal to cut down old-growth trees to build a 988-acre solar farm in Bircza.

Still, many Bircza residents fear losing their jobs and incomes if a national park is created. In January, Grzegorz Gągola, who heads the Bircza district, strongly condemned Warsaw’s decision to curtail logging in the area. “It can’t be the case that, with one ministerial decision, people are left without a livelihood overnight,” he said, as quoted in a local paper. 

Mystkowski acknowledges the fear of job losses. He says that neither he nor the other campaigners want to see the repeal of local authorities’ veto power over the creation of national parks. Instead, he would like Warsaw to signal that the area needs strict protection, give locals a say in the form that protection will take, and support loggers who want to retrain. “We need a fair, sustainable transformation,” he says. 


‘Postcards from the future’ — and the past

Last June, more than 500 people came to Rybotycze for Kwitnąca Otulina’s main summer festival. Mystkowski describes this series of performances and sporting events as “postcards from the future,” weaving a vision of the Przemyśl Foothills as a culture and tourism mecca. 

So far, the campaigners are celebrating small victories. Last month, a regional branch of Polish State Forests expressly banned the felling of “monument” trees — ones whose age, size, or other features qualify them for protection under Polish law — in much of the country’s southeast, including the Przemyśl Foothills. “That noise you hear is the sound of a weight being lifted off my heart,” Mystkowski jokes as we ramble through woodland near the village of Jamna. The Wiar River, in spate after heavy rains, roars in the background. 

According to Mystkowski, the area’s history as a luxury hunting destination has also hindered the campaign for a national park. From the 1960s until the fall of Communism, the Przemyśl Foothills housed a resort and hunting park for Polish and visiting officials, set near Arłamów — the woodland area that first beguiled young Piotr Klub. 

Many Poles view the so-called “Red Duchy” of Arłamów — surrounded by a fence through which animals could enter but not leave — as a symbol of official corruption and debauchery. For some, the name evokes a vision of drunk apparatchiks shooting deer as waiters bustle to refill their champagne glasses. 

Yet some Polish hunting clubs see Arłamów as a source of prestige or simply want to capitalize on the area’s abundant wildlife. Commercial hunts are organized regularly, catering to Western visitors and injecting cash into the local economy. Creating a national park would heavily restrict these activities. 

Still, Mystkowski insists that he would not continue with the “Invisible National Park” initiative if it lacked local support. “From one handshake to another, a kind of otulina has started to grow around the Turnicki park, a blanket of good energy,” he tells me, adding that around half of Kwitnąca Otulina’s 370-or-so volunteers are local. (For comparison, around 7,000 people live in the Bircza district.)  

Old buildings in the village of Rybotycze. February 2024.
The abandoned Orthodox Church of St. Onuphrius. Posada Rybotycka, February 2024.

Mystkowski insists that more and more people in the area appreciate its natural beauty and cultural heritage. “It’s time to put an end to apathy and start looking after all of this,” he says.

Visibly agitated, he decries the run-down state of some local landmarks, such as the Orthodox Church of St. Onuphrius in Posada Rybotycka — another village hollowed out by forced population transfers after World War II. 

For more on Eastern Europe’s lost diversity

The fortified brick church, one of the oldest Orthodox shrines in Poland, is perched on a roadside hill just outside Rybotycze. Its doors are barred, the outer walls are peeling, and the place has an air of desolation. “This should have been a pearl of Polish architecture,” Mystkowski laments.

Restoring the church could mark an important step towards recognizing the area’s multicultural history, Mystkowski says, even if the surrounding streets remain a shadow of their former selves. Whatever the fate of the national park, nobody voices much hope for a revival of the abandoned villages or the cultural diversity they once embodied. 

Yet one of these ghost villages, Borysławka, can claim a part-time resident for the first time in over 70 years. Antoni Pilch, a Polish lute player, decided to come back to his great-grandfather’s birthplace, buying a plot of land with a derelict wooden hut. 

The hut lacks electricity and running water, but Pilch — who describes himself as someone of mixed Jewish, Ukrainian, Austrian, and Mazur descent — is undeterred. “The village may have vanished from the face of the earth, but it is inside me,” he told Gazeta Wyborcza in 2022. “I can imagine its existence.”

Pilch also hopes his plot of land will become a gateway to a real Turnicki National Park. “The park should be created not just out of love for nature but also out of respect for the people who once lived here,” he said. “The forest was here before us, and the forest will be here when we’re gone.”

A new house built near the abandoned village of Borysławka. February 2024.
The Invisible Turnicki National Park

Story by Joanna Kozlowska for The Beet

Photos by Bartosz Bańka for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

© 2024