A Polish conservationist won a key environment prize Monday for leading a campaign that halted a giant expressway that would have sliced through one of Europe's last swaths of undisturbed wilderness.
Malgorzata Gorska, 37, an activist with the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, was one of six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, a $150,000 (euro110,000) cash award informally dubbed the "Green Nobel."
She was recognized for her leadership in harnessing European Union regulations to stop the planned expressway from cutting through the Rospuda Valley, wetlands set amid a virgin pine forest that is home to endangered bird species, orchids, eagles, lynxes, wolves, elk, wild boars, otters and beavers.
"Malgorzata Gorska's leadership in the fight to stop a controversial highway project led to a significant legal precedent for the environment that resulted in the protection of Poland's Rospuda Valley, one of Europe's last true wilderness areas," the Goldman Environment Prize said in a statement on its Web site.
An award goes each year to six people for grass-roots struggles that inspire regular people to take environmental action.
The awards are to be handed out Monday night in San Francisco, where the group is based.
"It's an absolutely pristine wetland ecosystem. It's really a beautiful place but very unique in terms of its natural value," she said. "It's a kind of reference for scientists working on the restoration of wetlands which have already been damaged."
Gorska herself lives near the pristine river valley, and adds: "I have an emotional link to those places."
Developers began plans in 1996 to build the highway -- the Via Baltica -- that was to link Warsaw to Helsinki, Finland, by cutting through the Rospuda Valley. The highway has been rerouted to circumvent the pristine area.
The Goldman prize said Gorska was "instrumental in fostering a citizens' movement and developing a case against the Polish government to protect the Rospuda Valley from construction."
After efforts to persuade the government to stop its plans failed, Gorska took advantage of Poland's new membership in the EU, which it joined in 2004, making the case that the project violated environment regulations known as the EU's Natura 2000.
The EU, as a result of her campaign, filed suit against Poland's government in 2007, forcing it to suspend work until the court could examine the case. While the European Court of Justice did that, a Polish court found the route violated national laws, and in 2009 the Polish government gave up its plans to build the expressway through the valley.
Gorska said she plans to spend most of prize money on other environmental projects. She is currently trying to stop the construction of an airport in Tykocin, a town in the same part of Poland. Developers want to put the airport between two national parks and close to the same river valley that she has worked to protect.
"There are a lot of migratory birds, which means there is a threat to nature and to planes," she said.