Vast gaps in the forest canopy are visible from above Romania’s Carpathian mountains, while stumps studding the ground are reminders of the trees chopped into logs and piled beside dirt roads.
Forest engineer Gabriel Oltean has fought against this intense, often illegal, logging with cameras that broadcast live on YouTube the incessant passage of woodcutters’ trucks.
He said he caused “a psychological shock” among locals at the gates of the legendary Transylvania region, which led to investigations and wood confiscations – though no criminal convictions yet.
People like him are fighting for forests blanketing the 1,500-kilometre (900-mile) mountain range that spans eight nations and sits in a region that is supposed to be among the best preserved in the European Union.
But in reality, a lack of enforcement and vast profits for the taking mean that the forests’ destruction, while leading to pressure in Romania, is still largely greeted with indifference in Poland.
“This forest should be sacred. We should be protecting such places,” Greenpeace Poland spokesman Marek Jozefiak said in the village of Zatwarnica in the country’s southeast.
“You see that hill? They’ve already logged it. Like 50 metres [160 feet] from a bear den,” said Jozefiak, noting only some 150 brown bears are left in Poland.
One of Europe’s “last remaining biodiversity havens”, the forests covering the Carpathians house bison, lynx, wolves and wildcats, along with many bird species like the three-toed woodpecker or the Ural owl.
On paper, it’s one of the most preserved regions in the EU, but only one to 3 percent of the forest is strictly protected in Poland, according to Greenpeace.
The state forestry agency, responsible for both protecting the forests and cutting the wood, owns the majority of forests.
Its revenue increased by 50 percent in 2022 year-on-year to 15.2 billion zlotys ($3.7bn), 90 percent of which comes from the sale of wood.
The agency is “trying to dig as much money as they can out of it”, Jozefiak said.
In 2018, Europe’s top court ruled that Poland’s government broke the law by logging in Bialowieza, a UNESCO world heritage site that is Europe’s largest surviving primaeval forest.
The old-growth forests of the mountain range are also important for mitigating climate change.
Worldwide, forests absorb a net amount of 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature Climate Change.
But “on average a forest area of more than five football pitches is lost to wood extraction every single hour” in the Carpathians, Greenpeace said in a report last November.