Yet, as Poland’s newly formed democracy began to grow economically in the 1990s, the Rospuda Valley came under threat. In 1996, developers began plans to route one of Europe’s most ambitious highway projects, the Via Baltica Expressway, directly through the Rospuda Valley, linking Helsinki to Warsaw. From the beginning, scientists and conservationists believed the highway would irreparably damage the valley. They called on developers to explore an alternate route avoiding the unique wetland ecosystems, though they faced significant opposition from the government that prioritized economic expansion over environmental protection.
When Poland joined the EU in 2004, it designated some of its best wildlife sites as protected areas, as required under the EU’s Europe-wide Natura 2000 network. The EU program seeks to permanently protect the most important natural areas among member states. If a development project threatens a Natura 2000 site, alternate plans must be explored and used when viable. The Rospuda Valley was listed as one of these sites. The proposed Via Baltica Expressway route would also cut through three other major Natura 2000 sites south of the Rospuda Valley: the Augustów Primeval Forest, the Biebrza Marshes and the Knyszyn Primeval Forest.
Małgorzata Górska, a conservationist with the Polish Society for Protection of Birds, played an integral role in the movement to protect the Rospuda Valley. She joined in the public outcry around the Via Baltica Expressway in 2002 and galvanized a coalition of activists and organizations, including WWF, the Polish Green Network and the Polish Society for Protection of Birds. Focusing first on activism within Poland, Górska and her colleagues met with lawyers developing a case against the Polish government, providing and writing opinions, appeals and data relevant to legal statutes. She co-led a national campaign urging thousands of people to wear green ribbons to show their support for saving the Rospuda Valley. Górska also coordinated the findings of the many Polish NGO partners researching the Via Baltica construction and the environmental harm it would bring to the area. She analyzed government data and reports supporting the expressway project and provided lawyers with findings to refute those reports. Górska also gave media interviews, participated in public debates, prepared a series of articles, and issued press releases and information about the project to journalists. All of those actions resulted in country-wide public support for protecting the Rospuda Valley from the environmental consequences of the road construction.
When it became clear that the Polish government was adamantly in support of the Via Baltica route, Górska and her coalition initiated a series of meetings with the European Commission about taking steps to block the construction on the grounds that Poland would violate Natura 2000 network regulations. She then played a leading role in preparing a complaint to the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament about the planned expressway and arranged a trip for members of the Parliament, other NGOs and scientists to visit the Rospuda Valley. As a result, the Petitions Committee prepared a report that was adopted by the European Parliament and presented to the EU that called for changing the Via Baltica route. The case was then presented to the European Court of Justice, which called for an immediate halt to part of the expressway project that threatened the protected site.
While the European Court of Justice considered the legality of the Rospuda route under European law, the Polish courts found that the project violated national laws and thus should not continue as planned. The pressure from both civil society and the EU garnered by Górska’s advocacy finally paid off. In March 2009, the Polish government announced it would not build the Via Baltica Expressway through the Rospuda Valley.
Following this monumental achievement, Górska continued the campaign to halt construction of the expressway through other protected sites: the Knyszyn Primeval Forest, the Biebrza Marshes and the Augustów Primeval Forest. Developers initially ignored strategic assessments that recommended viable, less damaging alternatives for the Via Baltica Expressway. However, on October 20, 2009, the Polish government agreed to reroute the whole controversial section of the expressway, effectively sparing these critical natural areas from destruction.