The Green Curtain: A 12,500-Km Pan-European Pathway Cuts Deeply into Military History, Embattled Biodiversity and the Push for Rejuvenation along the Iron Curtain

Article excerpt

FROM THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR until 1989, Europe was severed by a strip of barbed wire, minefields, watchdogs and spring guns. Nations on the Western side, mostly NATO members, were politically, economically and militarily divided from Warsaw Pact signatories in the East. Attempts to traverse the barrier were perilous, a most Europeans kept their distance.

By excluding humans, the border zone unwittingly welcomed nature. While some areas and their resident wildlife (especially in Eastern Europe) were devastated by strip mining, Soviet tank aneuvers and motion-sensing machine guns, ecosystems ranging from Arctic tundra to peat bogs to alpine meadows flourished along the Iron Curtain during its decadin-long respite from disturbance. Environmentalists on both sides noted this increase in biodiversity, but little could be done to officially protect it amidst the tense political climate of the Cold War.

Following the Iron Curtain's collapse in 1989, conservation initiatives started springing up along its former path. Cross-border cooperation led to the establishment of protected areas, which have since been increased and expanded to form vast networks. In 2002, the German conservation organization, BUND, proposed the creation of a pan-European greenbelt spanning the entire length of the former Iron Curtain. A series of conferences attended by delegates of the 24 former border countries have brought this idea to life during the last decade.

The 12,500-km European Green Belt now extends from the Barents Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, and includes four organizational regions: Fennoscandian, Baltic, Central European and Balkan. Although its width ebbs and flows, the greenbelt covers the same distance as a path from Vancouver to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and back again.

"This ecological corridor is an outstanding memorial landscape of European relevancy with a great potential for transboundary cooperation, sustainable regional development and the merging of Europe," explains Liana Geidezis, regional coordinator of Green Belt Central Europe. "It is a unique chance that last century's zone of death shall become a lifeline across Europe. Nature knows no boundaries."

The points of interest profiled on the following pages are just a fraction of the European Green Belt's mark on the landscape--a snapshot of the species, habitats, complexities and collaborations that are driving its development. Learn more at euronatur.org.

Fennoscandian Green Belt

A Oulanka National Park, Finland/Paanajdrvi National Park, Russia

The Fennoscandian Green Belt encompasses more than one million hectares of protected mixed boreal forest and Arctic tundra. Of particular interest to conservationists are the remaining large stretches of old-growth taiga--dry pine forests that haven't been logged in a millenium. Oulanka National Park in Finland and Its Russian sister, Paanajarvi National Park, are two of the many protected areas dedicated to conserving this ecosystem. The joint park also features vast mires, lakes, rivers, rapids, waterfalls and rugged ravines; these landscapes provide safe haven for rare species, including the wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus), violet copper butterfly (Lycaena helle) and Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). The unique geology of the Fennoscandian region is also preserved, such as unusual moraine features like kames and eskers, which were sculpted out of the Baltic Shield by retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.

In 2005, Oulanka and Paanajarvi were the first parks along the Fennoscandian Green Belt to be awarded the EUROPARC certificate, which recognizes cooperative transboundary achievements in ecosystem protection, sustainable tourism, research and peace promotion.

B Suomussalmi, Finland

The Cold War deeply divided Europe after the traumatic events of the Second World War, and Finland engaged in three separate battles to secure its post-war independence. …