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By Gabriela Baczynska
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union's highest court ruled on Tuesday that Poland broke EU environmental law with large-scale logging in the Bialowieza forest, an ecologically important World Heritage site and home to the rare European bison.
In the final ruling in Luxembourg, judge Marek Safjan of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said the logging in Bialowieza, an ancient forest straddling Poland's border with Belarus, endangered many birds and insects.
For months, Warsaw ignored environmentalists' protests and an ECJ order last July to stop logging immediately, adding to concerns that the largest ex-communist EU state was backpedalling on democratic standards under Law and Justice (PiS) party rule.
But the government said this year it had stopped the logging, part of a broader campaign to improve ties with the bloc after two years of bitter feuds - including on judicial independence and migration - since PiS won power in 2015.
Environment minister Jan Szyszko, who was responsible for the increased logging quotas, has since been dismissed, and the ministry said on Tuesday would respect the ruling.
Back in 2016, Poland had tripled logging quotas and said spruce and pine trees that were more than 100 years old had to be felled because of a beetle infestation. The ECJ said that was not justified.
While the case has since lost some of its political prominence amid the broader thaw between Warsaw and the bloc, environmental groups say damage has already been done to the delicate primeval habitat.
"The decisions that allowed logging must be withdrawn. Then, the Polish government should also consider enlarging the national park," said James Thornton, head of the environmental campaign group ClientEarth.
"This is the only way to guarantee that devastation of the forest will not happen again."
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey)