The lush, green canopy that is Bialowieza Forest spans 350,000 acres between Poland and Belarus. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to a variety of endangered species like the European bison, which is slightly larger and leaner than its American cousin.
It also has some of the last old-growth forest in Europe, untouched by human hands, and there is a great deal of international interest in preserving the forest's delicate ecology.
Polish journalist, author and naturalist Adam Wajrak said he never tires of seeing the complex life cycle in this forest up close.
"Look at there, here, you see?" he asked me, pointing to the top of a dead spruce trunk during a recent hike. "This is the little spruce growing on the body of dead spruce, this very often happens."
He peeled back the top layer of another dead trunk.
"If you look under the bark, there's a lot of beetles, a lot of spiders — everything, whatever you want, and this is how it works," he says. "This is why I compare the Bialowieza Forest to coral reef — because in coral reef, a lot of life is based also on the dead corals. So this works like that."
But the Polish government insists Mother Nature has lost control of Bialowieza Forest. Polish Minister of the Environment Jan Szyszko has repeatedly warned of a spreading bark beetle infestation targeting spruce trees in particular.
He says the forest must not be left to its own devices and that infected trees and those around them must be cut down. Last year, he approved a plan that triples the amount of logging in parts of the forest. It sparked an international outcry.
Foresters are planting less vulnerable oak saplings to replace the trees they are logging but that hasn't appeased critics, who complain the replanted woodlands look like man-made tree farms.
The Ministry of the Environment isn't budging on its claim that only human intervention can save this forest. It defends its plan on its official website, noting in big letters at the end: "We'll see who is right."
Mariusz Agiejczyk, the deputy chief in the Hajnowka district office overseeing state forests, firmly backs the ministry's plan. The General Directorate of the State Forests, a government agency, funds its activities from the $2 billion Polish logging industry.
Agiejczyk blames the bark beetle proliferation in the Bialowieza Forest on global warming and previous reductions of logging quotas there.
"The [Polish] foresters are here since 90 — almost 100 — years, and look how beautiful the forest is," he says. "This kind of criticism that says we are harming it is absurd, we did not do anything wrong."
The European Union's highest court is siding for now with the Polish government's opponents, who argue the beetle infestation must be left to nature. The European Commission — which is the EU's executive arm and is leading the legal action in the Court of Justice case — argues the Polish logging violates the bloc's wildlife protection laws.
On July 28, the court imposed a temporary injunction against logging in Bialowieza Forest to protect the trees while the case is being decided. But Szyszko said on July 31 that Poland won't abide by it, and that logging – which he referred to as "protective measures" for the forest – would continue.
Should Poland lose the case before the European Court of Justice, it could face fines of more than $4.7 million, plus possible penalties of around $350,000 each day.
Meanwhile, environmental activists are not waiting for officials. They've descended on Bialowieza Forest from around Europe in recent weeks to try and block the loggers.
Joanna Bienkowska, 30, of Greenpeace, is one of the activists who recently moved into a camp near the forest with other protesters. They've hung up a sheet that says "Bialowieza: Run, Forest, Run," playing on a line from Forrest Gump.
Bienkowska said she and the other activists spend their days hiking, biking and driving around the forest with maps, binoculars and GPS devices in search of the mechanical harvesters that cut down as many as 200 trees each day.
"We don't know where are harvesters, so we are looking for them," she says. "[They] are moving so fast with guards, so sometimes we don't know where they are."
Fellow activist Marcin Skopiński, a university student in cultural and social anthropology from Warsaw, says he recently helped form a human blockade that chained itself to a forest harvester.
"During patrols, I've see a lot of places where logging [is] taking place and it's a very sad thing to see," says Skopinski, 25. "Like some of the parts are looking like a storm came in or some huge destruction happened."
The activists say it's increasingly difficult to get to the harvesters because of the armed foresters, scores of whom are being sent here from around Poland to protect the logging operations.
But what they show me is the aftermath of the logging. Felled trees stripped of their bark and bearing the harvester's signature gouges are piled high along roads and trails, where trucks will haul them away.
Nearby, dozens of other trees are marked with fluorescent pink dots. They will be cut down next.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The tensions between the European Union and Poland are playing out right now in a fight over trees and bison. Brussels isn't happy with Warsaw's populist government. Poland's leaders have tried to limit judicial independence. And this week, they rejected an order from the EU's highest court to stop logging a protect forest. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The air is rife with mosquitoes here in Bialowieza Forest, which spans 350,000 acres in Poland and Belarus. The rich canopy is home to many endangered species, including the European bison. Polish journalist and naturalist Adam Wajrak says the forest's survival depends not only on the live trees towering overhead but on the many dead ones underfoot.
ADAM WAJRAK: Look at there, here. You see; this is a little spruce growing on the body of dead spruce. This is very often what happens.
NELSON: Wajrak shows me more.
WAJRAK: If you look under the bark, there's a lot of beetles, a lot of spiders - everything, whatever you want. You know, and this is how it works - why I compare the Bialowieza Forest to a coral reef - because in coral reef, a lot of life is based also on the dead corals. So this works like that.
NELSON: But the Polish government says this natural cycle is out of whack because of a bark beetle infestation that officials warn could decimate the forest. Mariusz Agiejczyk is deputy chief at the regional office of State Forests.
MARIUSZ AGIEJCZYK: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: He blames the beetle proliferation on global warming and a past reduction in logging and says foresters rather than Mother Nature are best able to stop it. His agency told loggers they can cut down three times the number of trees in the forest compared to last year. Most of those being cut are spruce trees, which are vulnerable to the beetle infestation.
AGIEJCZYK: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: Agiejczyk says foresters have been here almost a century and, quote, "look how beautiful this forest is - enough to get UNESCO certification. So any criticism of our logging is kind of absurd." But environmental activists from around Europe are trying to block the loggers.
Joanna Bienkowska, who is with Greenpeace, has moved into a camp near the forest with other protesters. The 30-year-old Warsaw resident says has her days are spent looking for giant harvesting machines used by the loggers.
JOANNA BIENKOWSKA: We don't know where are harvesters, so we are looking for them. They are moving, so sometimes we don't know where they are.
NELSON: Another activist, Marcin Skopinksi, says he recently was part of a human blockade that chained itself to a harvester to try and stop it from cutting up to 200 trees a day.
MARCIN SKOPINKSI: During the patrols, I've seen a lot of places where logging is taking place, and it's a very sad thing to see. Like, some of the parts are looking totally like the storm came in or like some huge destruction happened.
NELSON: The next day, he and Bienkowska drive out with the NPR team in search of more harvesters. They say it's hard to find them, as the armed Polish foresters are getting better at keeping people away. On this day, we are stopped by a forester, one of scores assigned here from around Poland.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: My interpreter tries to explain who we are, but the forester orders us to leave. So we try another path...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: ...This time of foot. After 10 minutes, we spot a European bison standing in the trees. We never find the harvester, although we can hear it faintly in the distance. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bialowieza Forest, Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.