Cordon Green

A change has come to the Iron Curtain death zone—and it's wild

Zoltan Istvan

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WHEN IT COMES TO natural splendor, the Iron Curtain isn’t exactly the first place that pops to mind. From 1946 until the Cold War’s end, in 1991, the “death strip” between Eastern and Western Europe bristled with tanks, land mines, barbed wire, and (in case the soldiers missed you) motion-sensing machine guns. The boundary was a hot spot, but not the type you’d want to visit.

What a difference an era makes. Today, backed by an international coalition of environmental groups and citizens, the former no-man’s-land is center stage for one of the most ambitious conservation plans in history: a project that would transform the entire 4,000-plus-mile zone, from the Arctic Ocean to the Adriatic, into a tourist-friendly, recreation-filled greenbelt—one of the longest nature preserves on earth.

“Turning a death belt into a life belt is an incredible way to honor peace and unity,” says wildlife biologist Liana Geidezis, 38, Grüs Band project manager for the Berlin-based BUND, one of Germany’s leading conservation groups (and a Friends of the Earth affiliate). Because Germany’s effort is farthest along—more than half of its border strip is a protected nature area—the country has become a role model for the grassroots “Green Belt Europe” movement. The finished product, Geidezis says, “will be the most important environmental symbol of the 21st century.”

The task will be daunting. For 45 years, the Iron Curtain was not just a figure of speech; it was a militarized zone from the northern tip of Scandinavia to southern Albania and Bulgaria, isolating Communist-bloc nations from neutral and NATO-aligned countries.

In Germany, one segment bisected the nation, and a separate fold, the Berlin Wall, carved up the capital. The frontier—30 to 1,000 yards wide—was broad enough for tanks and it was fenced, trenched, or guarded. On the eastern side, civilians couldn’t get within a mile of it.

Beyond Germany, the barrier sliced Europe in half. Shaping a greenbelt along this territory would be like setting up a nature corridor from Maine to California—and dealing with 18 prickly nations instead of states. Though no one has put an official price tag on the project, it could potentially cost billions.

So why bother? “The no-man’s-land was the safest place for wildlife-hunters, farmers, and developers all kept their distance,” says Geidezis. The zone is a scenic smorgasbord of forests, lakes, rivers, and ecosystems, a great number of them flush with endangered species. “When the Iron Curtain fell,” says Geidezis, “the land there had some of the best-preserved habitats in all of Europe.”

When the Berlin Wall came down, in 1989, BUND immediately campaigned to save the corridor, raising money to buy some sections and convincing the government to donate others. A green domino effect ensued, with dozens of organizations rallying to the cause.

Some of the results have been breathtaking, particularly in wilderness areas that were formerly split by borders and now are joined by them.

A greenbelt unites Finland’s stunning Oulanka National Park with the four-times-larger Paanajäi National Park in Russia, creating a Lapland paradise for hikers, kayakers, and reindeer fans.

Bicyclists in Podyjí National Park, where the Czech Republic meets Austria, can snap photos of still-standing military barracks, then hop back onto the popular Prague-Vienna cycling route. On the united Austria-Hungary border, in Neusiedler See National Park, birders can try to spot one of the most endangered species in the world, the great bustard. And Germany’s famed Bavarian Forest has been linked to the Czech Republic’s Sumava National Park to offer a total 350-plus miles of bike, ski, and foot trails.

Not everybody’s impressed. Some border lands are owned by farmers who don’t want to sell. Others belong to cash-strapped governments that don’t want to give up development rights.

Increased unity, though, is helping the greenbelt’s prospects. On May 1, ten new nations are joining the 15-member European Union, including the border countries Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. All EU nations are obliged to protect endangered habitats and species, and since so many of those wild things live in greenbelt zones, members will likely preserve at least some of them.

Lobbying for that preservation are international heavyweights like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, chairman of the conservation group Green Cross International. By literally banding together, Green Cross says, Europe can use the tattered past to build a cohesive future, simultaneously creating a “living museum” and an ecological wonderland.

The twin attractions-history and nature-might even boost tourism. “The two-punch combo is sure to help in a big way,” says Horst Dornieden, head of the Grenzland Museum, in Eichsfeld, where “death strip” exhibits compete with ecology displays.

It may take 20 more years to complete the greenbelt, supporters say. Success isn’t assured, they allow. But it might become the quintessential adventure zone, on historic, common ground.