Via Baltica

Tagged with: Casework status: Closed Casework type: Transport Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA
Black grouse Tetrao tetrix, adult male on lek. Corrimony RSPB reserve. Scotland

Overview

Key Natura 2000 sites in north-east Poland have been under threat from damage by a series of road projects on the so called 'Via Baltica' international road corridor, which will link Helsinki to Warsaw via Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The corridor upgrade was taking place as a series of separate individual projects (an approach commonly referred to as 'salami-slicing') rather than being planned in a strategic way.

When the individual projects were being planned, the obligations of the Nature Directives were not being properly taken into account. We have been working on the case for over seven years and can now celebrate some great results! While its not quite over yet we hope to be able to close this important case soon.

In April 2010, Malgorzata Górska from OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize - the world's top prize for grassroots activists - for her leadership of the successful campaign which stopped a road being built through Poland’s precious Rospuda Valley.

The RSPB has played a key role in this campaign - providing both technical and financial support for nearly a decade. We are delighted that Malgorzata has won this prize. Her determination to protect the area's vast tracts of primeval forests, ancient peat bogs and valuable wetlands should serve as an inspiration to fellow conservationists across the world and demonstrate it is possible to find win-win solutions which reconcile nature and economic interests.

Map

Why is it worth fighting for?

The sites under serious threat included Knyszyn Primeval Forest (a Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation) and the famous Biebrza Marshes (a SPA, SAC, Ramsar site and a National Park).

The pristine Rospuda Valley in Augustow Primeval Forest (SPA/SAC) was also threatened, but after years of campaigning with the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP, BirdLife in Poland) and other NGOs, this is now safe.

Special places

The Biebrza valley's special wildlife is a list of superlatives. With the biggest valley bogs in Central and Western Europe which are almost unaltered by human activity, it's home to no fewer that 48 species of birds specially protected by the Birds Directive. For aquatic warblers and greater spotted eagles it is the most important breeding site in the whole of the EU.

Wolves, lynx, otters and beavers are among the special mammals which depend on this wonderful area. It also has Poland's biggest population of elk.

The landscape of the valley is made up of vital habitats which support a profusion of wildlife - at least 15 different habitats are protected under the Habitats Directive. Quaking bogs, where the living mosses float on water beneath, are part of a mosaic of dramatic wetlands which give the Biebrza valley its unique qualities.

The Knyszyn Primeval Forest links humanity back to the landscape that pre-dated human settlement. Fragments of the forest still have a natural character where numerous springs feed clean streams and rivers.

It's the most important breeding area in Poland for a stunning list of specially protected birds including honey buzzards, lesser-spotted eagles, hazel grouse, black grouse, black woodpeckers and red-breasted flycatchers. These are just some of the 43 species listed on Annex 1 of the Birds Directive. Wolves, lynx and European bison are found here and are specially protected under the Habitats Directive along with 12 habitat types which cover a quarter of the forest's area. 

The Augustow Primeval Forest covers more than 1000  square kilometres. Most of it is ancient coniferous forest with a few open areas used for agriculture and patches of swampy forest which have survived into the 21st century. It is one of Poland's most important areas for breeding birds, amongst its ancient landscape can be found black storks, honey buzzards, lesser-spotted eagles, capercaillie, grey-headed, white backed and three-toed woodpeckers and red-breasted flycatchers.

There is a large population of nesting common cranes and rare birds of prey such as short-toed eagles, black as well as red kites and white-tailed eagles all can be found nesting. Add to those wolves and lynx as well as 150 elk and it's easy to see why this place is regarded as one of Europe's most important wildlife sites.

The Rospuda Valley lies in the northwest of the forest where you can find groundwater fed fens with totally undisturbed hydrological conditions, resulting in huge areas of open mires. It is the last mire of its type (known as a percolating mire) in Europe that is so pristine.

The majority of the site is covered by vegetation protected by the Habitats Directives and it is the most important site in Poland for two plant species protected by the Habitats Directives (fen orchid and kidney saxifrage). It is the only site in Poland where musk orchid occurs. Numerous rare and protected bird species breed in the valley or nearby forest such as common crane, hazel grouse, white-tailed eagle, marsh harrier, tengmalm's owl, capercaillie, spotted crake, honey buzzard and lesser spotted eagle.

Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, male displaying, Abernethy

Our position

We recognise the need for transport infrastructure improvements in North-East Poland, but believe these must be planned in accordance with European law to ensure truly sustainable projects that integrate nature considerations. 

We want the Polish government to implement their strategic decision to route the international road corridor via Lomza which was based on the results of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and construct this as a matter of urgency. When constructed the new road via Lomza will take most of the current and growing international transit traffic from the existing road through Bialystok which cuts the Natura 2000 sites.

We want the Polish authorities to plan individual road schemes with proper regard to nature in accordance with the requirements of the EU nature laws. We are delighted the Polish authorities have now made a decision on Augustow Bypass which protects Rospuda Valley. We urge them to treat this project as a priority to bring relief to the people of Augustow who have had to cope with heavy transit traffic for much longer than necessary because of the Polish authorities' approach to project planning and initial insistence that the project be built through Rospuda Valley.

In addition to the Via Baltica corridor, the Polish authorities are also intensifying plans for other road developments in NE Poland including re-branding of the Bialystok route for Via Baltica as the 'Via Carpatia'. If these plans go ahead (and before they do we believe the need for them should be examined thoroughly) they must be planned in accordance with EU nature and impact assessment laws.

We want the Polish Road Agency to reconsider the scale of planned upgrades of individual road projects along the old 'Via Baltica' route such as Sztabin bypass which will affect Biebrza Marshes and section through Knyszyn Forest. We hope the European Commission will withhold Structural Funding to Poland until the Polish authorities take nature protection seriously in programme and project planning.

We have helped a coalition of Polish NGOs prepare a complaint to the European Commission – submitted in January 2006. Since submission of the complaint, we have played a key role helping OTOP/BirdLife International provide the Commission with information about developments on the case in Poland, including submission of numerous formal updates to the complaint.

We have worked hard to raise the profile of the case with MEPs – through submission of a Petition to the European Parliament's Petitions Committee in 2006, participation in MEP visits to Poland, MEP briefings – and with the media.

We support the Polish NGOs in keeping the Bern Convention officials informed and following the case. We are also supporting OTOP in their work through the planning process and legal activities in Poland.

Key results to date

In December 2006 the European Commission opened a legal case and called on Poland to halt the road projects breaching the EU nature directives.

In October 2007 there was a change of Polish Government and the new Environment and Infrastructure Ministers established a 'Round Table' to seek a compromise solution for Augustow Bypass, in which the Polish NGOs participated. As an outcome of the Round Table a new environmental assessment was carried out looking at three different routes – two going around rather than through the valley.

Based on the results of this new study, in March 2009 the Polish Prime Minister announced that his Government would avoid building a highway through the Rospuda Valley Natura 2000 site. Instead, they will solve the traffic problems by building the road on an alternative route that avoids the Valley.

In recognition of this decision in April 2009 the European Commission closed its legal case against Poland on the Rospuda Valley.

In summer 2008 the Polish authorities presented a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report to inform the choice of the Via Baltica route corridor for consultation. This SEA strongly recommends an alternative western route for Via Baltica via Lomza which would be much less damaging to Natura 2000 sites than the eastern route via Bialystok and is also shorter, cheaper and technically simpler.

In October 2009 the Polish authorities finally took a strategic decision based on this SEA to route the Via Baltica via Lomza. We now urge the authorities to change other strategic documents to implement this decision, in particular the current list of investments under the Polish Operational Programme 'Infrastructure & Environment' and the revision of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in Poland.

In December 2009 the Polish authorities issued the new consent for Augustow Bypass confirming that the road will bypass Augustow Primeval Forest and the magnificent Rospuda Valley. This project will be the first section of the Via Baltica built on the new (less damaging) route.

These decisions are a great victory for Europe's natural heritage and for all who care for it. They clearly show how infrastructure development and protection of Natura 2000 sites can go together. They show that where there is political will and respect for the EU legislation development goals can be achieved while effectively protecting the natural environment.

Overall, the situation with the Via Baltica case is looking much more positive with the Rospuda Valley decision and the strategic decision to route the Via Baltica via Lomza - these are fantastic steps forward - so there is a lot to celebrate already. However, before we sit back completely we we want to see these decisions implemented and these roads constructed as a matter of urgency, so it's not just a paper victory.

There are also concerns Poland is still going to upgrade the other projects on the old Bialystok route for Via Baltica. With the new route for the Via Baltica corridor settled, the scale of the planned projects on the old route need to be reconsidered to avoid damage to Natura 2000 sites.

Furthermore, the Polish Government is now attempting to include in the Polish TEN-T network a new road corridor - 'Via Carpatia' - that partially overlaps with old 'Via Baltica'route. The 620 kilometres planned Via Carpatia international road corridor in Poland would affect 18 existing and planned Natura 2000 sites. Given the strategic importance of the Via Baltica case - potential impacts on the individual sites and the precedent it sets - BirdLife will continue to follow it closely.

 Common or Eurasian crane Grus grus, families compete aggressively for food in maize stubble field, during autumn migration period, Hohendorf

Timeline

  • April 2010
    Malgorzata Górska from OTOP (BirdLife in Poland) is awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize - the world's top prize for grassroots activists - for her leadership of the successful campaign which stopped a road being built through Poland's precious Rospuda Valley. Malgorzata Górska is the European winner of this prestigious international prize which is shared by environmental heroes from six continental regions. Frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment, the Goldman Environmental Prize is often awarded to men and women who take great personal risks to safeguard the environment. Malgorzata received her Prize in San Francisco on 19 April, and on 21 April attended a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
  • December 2009
    The Polish authorities release the new consent for Augustow Bypass which confirms that the road will bypass Augustow Primeval Forest and the magnificent Rospuda Valley. This project will be the first section of the Via Baltica built on the new (less damaging) route. We applaud these recent decisions but the campaign is not quite over. The decisions do not bring an automatic halt to current road construction work inside the Knyszyn Forest or other environmentally harmful road development plans in north-east Poland and the Polish authorities need to amend their strategic documents (Operational Programme and TEN-T network) to reflect the new Via Baltica route via Lomza
  • October 2009
    The Polish Council of Ministers decide on a new routing for the Via Baltica via Lomza based on the SEA results. We strongly welcome this as major progress for the conservation of Poland’s unique nature and a significant step in the right direction towards the proper implementation of Polish and European environmental legislation
  • Summer 2009
    The Polish Road Agency prepares for the upgrade of a 12 km road section through the Knyszyn Primeval Forest including cutting 13 000 trees and clearance of forest and shrubs
  • April 2009
    In recognition of the Polish decision on Rospuda, the European Commission closed its legal case against Poland on the Rospuda Valley, but other elements of the case continue
  • March 2009
    Based on the results of the new study the Polish Prime Minister announces that his Government would avoid building a highway through the Rospuda Valley Natura 2000 site. Instead, they will solve the traffic problems by building the road on an alternative route that avoids the Valley
  • September 2008
    The Highest Administrative Court in Poland rule that the Augustow City Bypass section of the 'Via Baltica' is illegal because it had been planned without proper environmental assessment and consideration of alternative routes as is required by the EU Habitats Directive. The judgment is the result of an appeal by OTOP, other Polish environmental NGOs, the Polish Ombudsman and the regional prosecutor. The result of this decision is that the Polish authorities have had to start the planning procedure for the Augustow bypass again and comply with the requirements the Habitats Directive
  • Summer 2008
    The Polish authorities present a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report to inform the choice of the Via Baltica route corridor for consultation. This SEA strongly recommends an alternative western route for Via Baltica via Lomza which would be much less damaging to Natura 2000 sites than the eastern route via Bialystok and is also shorter, cheaper and technically simpler
  • October 2007
    Change of Polish Government and the new Environment and Infrastructure Ministers establish a 'Round Table' to seek a compromise solution for Augustow Bypass, in which the Polish NGOs participate. The Round Table decide a new environmental assessment should be carried out looking at three different routes – two going around rather than through the valley
  • 13 September 2007
    The Petitions Committee adopt a report backing firm action from the commission. The report centres on the need to choose the alternative route via Lomza for the whole corridor. It states that the commission should not finance the Via Baltica without a proper strategic assessment. It is highly critical of the lack of safety measures in affected Polish towns, calling on the commission to help finance such safety measures
  • August 2007
    Under threat of a further European Court of Justice (ECJ) injunction the Polish Government finally provide confirmation to the ECJ that construction work on these two sections of projects will not be carried out until the ECJ considers the Via Baltica case in full
  • July 2007
    The Polish authorities announce their intention to start construction of sections of the road in two Natura 2000 sites (including Rospuda Valley) on 1 August 2007. The tension on the ground escalates with security guards employed by the Polish authorities patrolling within Rospuda Valley and a second protest camp considered by Greenpeace Poland
  • June 2007
    European Parliament Petitions Committee visit Via Baltica
  • April 2007
    The European Court of Justice make an order - the first time such an order is made to protect a Natura 2000 site from imminent damage by development – a new precedent
  • March 2007
    Unfortunately, Poland remains unmoved and construction work on the two projects continues. In response, the commission refer the case to the European Court of Justice and ask for an urgent order to stop damage, which would be caused by part of the project (a compensatory program affecting another Natura 2000 site)
  • February 2007
    When Poland fail to provide a satisfactory response and give contractors the green light for forest clearance work for the Augustow and Wasilkow Bypasses the commission send Poland a 'final written warning'. A protest camp is established in Rospuda Valley by Greenpeace Poland and other NGOs with strong support from the general public and celebrities and a high level of interest from the Polish media
  • December 2006
    Having investigated the case and been unable to resolve it through informal contact with Poland, the European Commission open legal proceedings and send Poland a 'first written warning' about eight road projects – new roads, bypasses and upgrades all linked to the Via Baltica corridor
  • December 2006
    Electronic petition organised
  • August 2006
    Our supporters letter writing campaign on Via Baltica
  • June 2006
    We help OTOP prepare and submit a petition on Via Baltica to the European Parliament Petition’s Committee
  • January 2006
    A coalition of Polish NGOs, including OTOP submit a complaint to the European Commission about very serious concerns that planning for seven road projects in north-east Poland, including Augustow Bypass, do not comply with the requirements of EU nature laws. This complaint is produced with our strong support
  • December 2003
    The Bern Convention adopt a strong recommendation that a Strategic Environmental Assessment should be carried out to inform the decision on the route for the Via Baltica and minimise as far as possible damage to important nature sites, based on a case brought by the NGOs

Outcome

After eight years of campaigning and lobbying, the Biebrza Marshes, Knyszyn Forest, Augustow Forest and Rospuda Valley were finally saved from damage when the Polish government announced consent for an alternative route for the Via Baltica Expressway in December 2009.

This new route avoids all of the Natura 2000 protected areas whilst still meeting the objectives of this strategic transport link of European importance. Regional road upgrades along the original route went ahead after proper assessment under Habitats Directive rules and with proper mitigation.

This case was a significant victory for OTOP and the RSPB, which has lead to a general improvement in how Polish authorities deal with major infrastructure projects leading to more being planned and consented properly. If this had been done in the first instance then significant costs and delays could have been avoided.

Download

Bern Recommendation No. 108 (2003) on the proposed construction of the 'Via Baltica' (Poland). PDF,35Kb

Bern Recommendation

Rospuda Valley saved ... but Via Baltica destruction continues. PDF, 274Kb

Via Baltica update - construction continues under a new name, Via Carpatia

Rospuda Valley saved ... but Via Baltica destruction continues in other Natura 2000 sites. PDF, 80Kb

Via Baltica update - new imminent damage to Natura 2000 site

New imminent damage to Knyszyn Forest Natura 2000 site. PDF, 269Kb

Via Baltica photo update

Six years after Recommendation No. 108 (2003) on the proposed construction of the 'Via Baltica' expressroad (Trans-European road corridor I, Poland) there is now significant progress in its implementation, although some aspects remain outstanding. PDF, 178Kb

Briefing on Via Baltica expressroad in Poland for the Bern Convention Standing Committee meeting