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Poland, EU clash over road plan for wetlands

As new bloc members play economic catch-up, richer neighbors push environmentalism.

March 04, 2007|Ryan Lucas | Associated Press Writer

ROSPUDA RIVER VALLEY, POLAND — A sharp wind rustles the brittle wetland grasses and the snow crunches underfoot -- the only sounds in the Rospuda River Valley, home to one of Europe's best-preserved peat bogs.

The bog and surrounding pine forest -- habitat to eagles, wolves, lynx and wild orchids that survived a communist regime notorious for its disregard of the environment -- have become the center of a strident dispute between Poland and the European Union over plans to build a highway here.

The road would relieve truck traffic clogging the town of Augustow and provide an economic boost to the region. But the EU says cutting across the bog would wreak havoc with ecosystems and destroy the area's pristine beauty.

Similar debates are raging across the newer EU member states, which must balance environmental preservation against their desire to catch up with their richer neighbors.

In Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, national authorities are pushing for construction of the $150-million highway that would slice across the wetlands, in a zone that is protected by EU habitat law.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has rejected the plan and says he will seek an injunction to suspend construction. On Wednesday, the EU said it was giving Poland a week to stop the work.

Tucked away in a thick pine forest near the Lithuanian border, about 150 miles northeast of Warsaw, the Rospuda River Valley survived the industrial development of the 19th century and 45 years of communism untainted, professor Ludwik Tomialojc said in an interview.

"It is a place that so far has been undisturbed by the economy," said Tomialojc, who leads the Committee on Nature Conservation at the Polish Academy of Science. "It wasn't drained during communism, when most everything was drained to mud. It lies in a forest and didn't attract anyone's special attention."

The area was once a river-fed lake that over several thousand years turned into a peat bog. This winter, in 5-degree temperatures, the frozen wetlands can be walked on, with their stumpy, twisted pines, slender birches and clumps of earth and brown grass poking out from beneath the snow.

In summer, the valley bursts into a lush green forest flecked with the white bark of birch trees. Kayakers paddle the river as the bog becomes impassable.

The EU's two newest members -- Bulgaria and Romania, which joined Jan. 1 -- also are struggling for ways to reconcile the needs of the environment with economic development.

Bulgarian landowners are pushing for looser limits on land protection to cash in on the booming real estate market, while environmentalists want more sites protected under the EU's program.

In Romania, environmentalists and authorities in the Black Sea coast town of Constanta are wrestling over efforts to build a tourist resort on a lake island called Siutghiol, home to 45 species of birds.

Polish authorities on Feb. 9 approved plans to construct a 10-mile section of the Via Baltica highway, which would link Poland to Finland. For 500 yards it would cut through the peat bog valley and bypass Augustow. Environmentalists argue that heavy construction equipment and support pillars will destroy rare species; they want the road to circumvent the valley.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has warned that bowing to environmentalists would set a precedent that could threaten the plan to build some 4,000 miles of badly needed highways in Poland by 2020.

Kaczynski said that if the valley were to remain intact, the road would have to go through other rare habitats, provoking different protests.

Augustow residents want the road, arguing that too many people have been run over by trucks driving through the town.

"We need this highway like we need air to breathe. How many people have died!" said flower vendor Irena Koprowicz, 57.

"Day and night, nonstop, the trucks rumble through here. Nothing will happen to the frogs and flowers. This highway is absolutely necessary."

About 100 environmental activists have set up treetop tents to prevent heavy machinery from entering the area.

"We've never said that nature is more important than people," said Greenpeace spokesman Jacek Wisniarski, sitting at a campfire at the protesters' forest camp. "We've always said this road should be built, just not here, not through the valley."

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.

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