Minecraft version of Bialowieza Forest (GIF via YouTube)

The centuries-old, towering trees in some of Europe’s last remaining primeval woodland are swiftly falling.

Covering over 1,100 square miles, the Białowieża Forest in Poland has witnessed increased logging over the past year under order of the Polish government, which passed a controversial law to approve a tripling of the deed. While its environmental minister, Jan Szyszko, had argued that felling trees was necessary to fight an infestation of spruce bark beetles, many scientists, environmental groups, and conservation organizations — from Greenpeace to the World Wildlife Fund — have condemned the policy as a dire threat to a rich and ancient ecosystem. Seeking an immediate halt to the logging, the European Commission took Poland to court over the policy earlier this summer.

Isometric view of the entire digitized area (image courtesy geoboxers.com)

As part of the escalating protests, which have also occurred in the forest, Greenpeace Poland launched a creative campaign to increase global awareness of the threats facing the Bialowieza Forest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To the Last Tree Standing allows you to explore about 270 square miles of the 10,000-year-old forest through a custom-built Minecraft map, where its verdant trees, streams, and quiet clearings have been digitized into a 1:1 scale model built from over 50 billion cubic blocks. The 18 gigabyte result, produced by GeoBoxers, features about six to seven million trees.

To access it, you have to own Minecraft v1.8 and join the campaign’s multiplayer server with the IP number and domain name “ostatniedrzewo.pl.” What awaits is a realistic albeit blocky version of the forest, where you can gaze up at the monumental trees, watch sunlight ripple on the surface of crystalline rivers, and get lost in a crimson sunset.

“The places you see here exist in the real world and need real help,” the narrator of the campaign’s promotional video warns. “Don’t let the digital Bialowieza Forest become its only version left.”

Critics of the project might question why such a map would make people care about preserving the forest if they’re provided access to a realistic backup. But no virtual world, of course, will ever replace reality, especially when it recreates a unique space that is home to over 5,500 plant species and 11,000 animal species, including the world’s largest population of free-ranging European bison. Some people will likely play the map simply for fun, as they would any other game, but the campaign’s approach is a fresh one, and it’s certainly commendable.

Aside from the map, To the Last Tree Standing has also produced a documentary about the forest (in Polish). It urges people to sign a petition to have the forest federally protected. Only 17% of the woodland is currently deemed a national park, which leaves much of it available for logging or hunting.

The area of the forest covered by the project (image courtesy geoboxers.com)

The choice to adopt Minecraft as an educational platform is especially smart, as it serves as a very engaging, relatively accessible format to familiarize people with a cause they might not read about otherwise. Minecraft is especially popular with younger generations, who comprise the campaign’s target audience. According to organizers, the map has already proved successful among Polish youth, particularly as many Polish YouTube celebrities have live-streamed their experiences of wandering through the pixelated forest.

“Thanks to them, pretty much every kid who plays Minecraft in Poland now knows what the Bialowieza Forest is,” the organizers write on the campaign’s website. Their hope is that these kids will grow up with not only knowledge of the forest but the opportunity to visit it in person; to see more than sketched bushes and rivers and instead step on real soil, shaded by trees with gracefully rustling leaves.

Screenshot from the “Bialowieza Forest” Minecraft map

Screenshot from the “Bialowieza Forest” Minecraft map

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...