A natural wonder is threatened by human activity
Legend has it that Neringa, a giant goddess, created the Curonian Spit to shield fishermen from the Baltic Sea.
Fishing has been the main trade on the spit for centuries and also the way of life, and it now bears the name Neringa.
Although fishing is gradually giving up its position to tourism, the spit has preserved the original architectural styles of a fishing village. Perched on the edge of the lagoon are single-story wooden structures with gabled roofs of red tile or thatch. The walls are painted brown, white and blue, and decorated with ornamental weather vanes, which used to be identifying marks on fishing boats. These reflect the functional needs and the aesthetic sensibility of the Kuršiai tribe that once lived here.
At the end of the 19th century the recreational value of these villages became apparent, and spacious villas were built.
If you ever get to stay in a fisherman’s house, the local people will paint a romantic but very different picture of life in a wooden house on the water’s edge. They will tell you of lonely autumn evenings, ravaging winds, and ice floes from the frozen lagoon climbing into the house through the windows in deepest winter.
However, a summer’s morning on the Curonian Spit is idyllic, with the smell of smoked fish, and the smoke coiling upwards from every other house into a clear sky. Posters explain about all the varieties of fish, and smoked eel is a local speciality.
To recognize the unique interaction between man and the environment, as well as the combination of the natural and the cultural heritage (ethnic, archaeological and aesthetic), in 2000 the Curonian Spit, both the Lithuanian and the Russian sides, was listed as a cultural landscape on the Unesco World Heritage List.
There are 37 such sites that Unesco has so far acknowledged, ranging from rice terraces in the Philippines to early Christian monasteries incorporated into the landscape of the Qadisha Valley in the Lebanon.
The Curonian Spit (or Kuršių Nerija), a sabre-shaped, 98-kilometre-long peninsula, washed by the waters of the Baltic Sea from the west and separated from the mainland by the Curonian Lagoon on the east, is home to some of the highest sand dunes in Europe.
Since 1923, the northern half (52 kilometres) has belonged to Lithuania. Today the southern half belongs to the Kaliningrad enclave of the Russian Federation. It is only 370 metres wide at Šarkuva (now Lesnoj) in the Kaliningrad region where it joins the Semba peninsula. At the Horn of Bulvikis (near Nida) it is its widest, at 3.8 kilometres. At Klaipėda the spit is separated from the mainland by a 0.5-kilometre strait.
Even after the thousands of years that have elapsed since the formation of the spit, a visitor can still have the experience of witnessing its white dunes rising from the blue waters of the Baltic. The majestic view is even more impressive in view of the fact that this is achieved by battling with time and the winds that are eternally shifting the sand from the sea.
More than a century ago humans learned a painful lesson. By destroying the local natural vegetation, their own life on the spit was threatened. Entire fishermen’s villages became fugitives from the treacherous wind-blown sand.
The Curonian Spit, which today offers a unique experience of tranquillity, was recovered by ingenious and thorough work by reintroducing protective layers of grass, shrubs and trees. This work continues to the present day, and will have to go on for as long as man wants it to himself.
Scientists believe that the spit started emerging 6,000 years ago, formed from sand by winds and currents. By the Iron Age it was already covered in vegetation and forests, and it was roughly then that the Baltic tribes settled it.
Throughout history, being strategically important, the Curonian Spit changed hands many times. It experienced rule by the Prussians, Russians, Swedish, French and Germans.
The invasions and activities of the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and later the economic rise of Prussia had disastrous consequences. Military and industrial needs resulted in the deforestation of the spit in the 18th century; and the destruction of the forests exposed the sands to treacherous winds.
There was no mercy shown to anything or anyone. In the 18th century, 14 fishing villages were buried under the sand.
One was the village of Karvaičiai. Letters and notes written by the pastor record the painstaking efforts to reclaim the farmsteads from the sand. Every morning the fishermen would find the sand closer to their houses. They tried digging, but it was to no avail. There was nothing to do but to yield their homes, church and school, and even their cemetery to the sand, and move elsewhere.
Fleeing death by burial, people kept resettling ever closer to the lagoon. Yet the lagoon itself was threatened by the newly formed and shifting dunes. The villages buried under the sand are now unique archaeological sites.
Holidaymakers often take for granted the verdant look of the Curonian Spit and the variety of species of flora and fauna that find a safe haven there. The scale of the afforestation program is not sufficiently appreciated.
For the Prussian government, reinforcing and planting in the sand dunes took all of the 19th century. The project was the work of the Wittenberg University professor J.D. Titius and the Danish dune inspector S. Biörns.
Another key figure behind the work was G.D. Kuwert, who was responsible for the afforestation of Urbas Hill close to Nida. His grave is now a local landmark.
The ultimate task was to contain the sand dunes and to prevent them from shifting. But no grass or other vegetation could take root on the dunes that were attacked incessantly by the sand swept up from the sea.
To stop it, a protective barrier was built along the coast. It was formed at a distance of 50 to 60 meters from the sea out of thick branches and poles, reinforcing the fencing with the very same sand. When the barrier reached a height of 1.5 meters, sea-matt grass was planted. Its long roots bound together the sandy surface, making it stronger.
After several years, sand-loving shrubs could be planted. Once built, the barrier (also called a foredune) grew naturally, and in some places it was 12 metres high and 80 metres wide.
Today, this Great Wall of China of the Curonian Spit, as Vladas Portapas, the director of the Kuršių Nerija National Park, calls it, is best preserved in its original form between the villages of Juodkrantė and Smiltynė.
Helping vegetation grow on the dunes was no easy task. For this, the surface of a dune would be covered in brushwood hurdles, and clay or silt had to be added to start the grass off. After a few years, mountain pines could be brought from Switzerland and Denmark and planted.
Only two strips of dunes were left uncovered. They are the “grey”, “dead” or “bare” dunes between Juodkrantė and Pervalka, and the shifting Parnidis Dune, a landmark near the town of Nida.
A path of wooden planks leads over the dune and winds through the sand until it disappears. The rest of the route is marked with red flags on metal poles, and visitors are strongly advised to follow it instead of roaming over the dunes. Those with a lot of stamina can go to the top to enjoy the views of the grey dunes and the water on both sides.
Every spring, these paths have to be reclaimed from the sand. This is just one simple example illustrating the nature of the efforts necessary to preserve the present status of the spit.
In 1991, the Seimas founded the Kuršių Nerija National Park, thus placing it in the special care of the state. The protection has a dual nature, as natural forces are also a threat.
“At the moment the situation is stable,” says Albertas Kvietkus, the park’s deputy director for the natural and cultural heritage.
The main task today is to maintain the existing protection systems, first of all the foredune, using the same methods and materials as a hundred years ago.
“A cross-section of the fore-dune would look like a huge pie of multiple layers from different ages,” Kvietkus says. “We are also adding our own layer to it.”
Now 72 per cent of the spit is covered in forests dominated by pine trees, which keeps the park rangers very busy.
Promoting environmental awareness and educational recreation is another big task for the park, as even local people lack an understanding of the unique nature of the spit. It is very encouraging, though, that schools are active in the process.
According to Kvietkus, the fact that the Curonian Spit was listed as a World Heritage Site makes it easier to achieve their aims. Besides the benefit of greater attention from the international community, the park gets the green light for participation in international projects and gets better access to international funds.
Green infrastructure or modernization
Needless to say, the Curonian Spit is very attractive to business, which, if given free rein, would immediately transform it into a pleasure dome with hordes of entertainment seekers flooding in.
Luckily, the government’s vision is different. According to Eduardas Vaitkevičius from the State Protected Territories Service at the Ministry for the Environment, the status of national park means that this natural property, which in this case is also a cultural one, has to be preserved not only for nature, but also for people, in its current form.
This involves first of all the protection of the natural reserve zones from the destructive intervention of man.
“We can see that the dunes are shrinking with the years,” Kviet-kus says. “Therefore, walking on them is especially damaging. We need more modern equipment, as sometimes it’s hard to control people who appear on the dunes even in jeeps.”
The protection of nature is implemented not only by restrictions. An effective tool in this is the development of the “green infrastructure”. To provide visitors with more opportunities to explore the woods on their own, there are plans to expand the recreational areas around the settlements by building more cycling and nature trails.
With regard to the settlements (Alksnynė, Juodkrantė, Pervalka, Preila and Nida, all belonging to the municipality of Neringa, with a population of 2,700), important legislation applies. According to Gintautas Survila, the chief architect of the Kuršių Nerija National Park, there is no other area in Lithuania where such strict regulations apply.
No new construction is allowed on the spit, only reconstruction is permitted. Height limitations are imposed for all construction work, and requirements for the shape of the roof and a local colour scheme and decoration must be met. All the land on the spit is state property.
The balance between practicality and conservation is always a sensitive issue. Some earlier decisions still attract criticism. One was the construction of an airfield for small aircraft near Nida.
Currently the idea of building a bridge between the mainland and the spit is being deliberated. Although it would ease access to the spit, which at the moment can only be reached by ferry from the mainland, it would have other dramatic implications, mainly by bringing increased numbers of people.
According to Survila, the local community supports the idea of a bridge. Yet a bridge, he argues, would also interfere with navigation. Other options, such as a tunnel, have not yet been considered.
Bone of contention
However, not everything is good on the other side of the lagoon. In fact, the issue of the conservation status of the Curonian Spit has been on the agenda of World Heritage Committee meetings for several years.
The source of the trouble is D-6, an oilfield discovered in 1982 and located in Kaliningrad waters just 23 kilometres from the spit, and five kilometres from Lithuania’s sea border. The Lukoil-Kaliningradmorneft company currently owns the licence for the field. There are unconfirmed plans to start drilling for oil, and the preparations are in progress.
Lithuania is apprehensive about the possible environmental impact of industrial activities in close proximity to a protected site. But so far not even a joint analysis by Lithuania and Russia on the possible threat has been made (one has been made by Russia), which is necessary under the circumstances.
According to Ina Marčiulionytė, the Lithuanian ambassador to Unesco, the Russian Federation is failing to comply with the requirements of the committee and is violating its commitment to avoid danger to a protected site.
Though the Kuršių Nerija National Park and the Russian Kurshskaya Kosa national park signed a cooperation agreement before the spit was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000 (the two parks cooperate on other issues), this question is outside their control. Moreover, the D-6 issue seems to Russia to be more a political ambition than an economic necessity.
But even the World Heritage Committee cannot do much in this situation, when the threat is posed by a state which is also responsible for a site. According to Zhang Xuezhong, the Chinese ambassador to Unesco who is chairing the committee this year, it is impossible for the committee to put the Curonian Spit on the endangered sites list, should this be proposed by Lithuania, in the absence of a consensus between the states responsible for the site.