The most ecologically significant land on the Korean Peninsula is not a nature reserve or World Heritage site, but instead a green corridor strewn with land mines. The heavily militarized DMZ between North and South Korea has been relatively undisturbed by the intensive land use and environmental degradation that has taken place elsewhere in both Koreas since 1953 ,and wildlife and recovering habitats flourish here as nowhere else in the region. This is a remarkable and unintended consequence of the military standoff that divides the Peninsula. CNN reports:
"As a result, the ribbon of untouched land along the 38th parallel has now become an important refuge for two of the world's most endangered birds: the white-naped and the red-crowned crane. Other rare species include Asiatic black bears, Chinese gorhals and egrets. According to some accounts there may even be Korean tigers in the DMZ -- a sub-species of the Siberian tiger, one of the rarest tigers on the planet. In total more than 20,000 migratory fowl utilize the border area. They manage to avoid setting off land mines -- although nowadays some may be too old to be active. The 4-kilometer-wide by 250-kilometer long (2.5 miles by 155 miles) DMZ stretches across the entire width of the Korean Peninsula, encompassing a cross section of ecosystems and landscapes."
This is not conservation by design but by default, and it is a tenuous benefit with an uncertain outcome. The dividends of peace in this region, as welcome and laudable as they would be, will place added pressure on this border corridor as people once again can move freely and as economic activity and demand for land increases. Without safeguards and the intentional conservation of the extraordinary natural resource that has emerged in the DMZ, it will not endure such pressures. Yet people do not conserve what they do not value, and often value is determined by what provides tangible benefits to those who live closest to the resource. Without their support, a narrow strip of green becomes easily fragmented, the will to enforce conservation legislation weakens, and that old dichotomy of choosing between conserving land for wildlife or meeting the needs of people becomes the new default. As readers of Walking the Berkshires have heard from me before on this subject, when the choice is framed as either human or environmental interests, we do not tend to vote against our own species.
This phenomenon of ecological recovery by default has happened in many other places besides the Korean DMZ. National Geographic News had a story this month on the extraordinary natural resources and even relatively "pristine" ecosystems that persist today in Cuba. Regardless of where one stands regarding Castro's regime and the embargo of Cuba, it is nonetheless significant that Cuba's biodiversity remains the richest in the Caribbean. As for the reasons why, a combination of isolation, totalitarian and autocratic social controls, limited access to markets, and -credit where it is due - progressive environmental policy has eased the pressure on some of Cuba's ecological heritage. The tragedy is that it is utterly unsustainable. Again, when Castro's regime falls and reinvestment in Cuba accelerates, those who have lived in tyranny may well value enhancing their living standards over conserving an ecological heritage from which they may feel estranged. Those who return and those who invest may have different goals and aspirations. A conservation legacy will endure here only to the degree that Cuba's new leaders have the common experience and shared values of combining poverty alleviation with environmental conservation.
Elsewhere, the abandonment of economically marginal land has lead to a resurgence of wildlife, some reestablishing populations after having been completely extirpated from parts of their historic range. The woodlands of the Eastern United States, and particularly those on state and federally protected lands, are now maturing forests with robust and growing populations of black bear, bobcat, wild turkey and beaver, many of which only a few generations ago were virtually absence from these lands. Marginal farmland in economically challenged rural areas was acquired cheaply and in bulk by state agencies during the 20th century and as conservation land and now forms the backbone of extensive park systems with increasing biological diversity. The once barren Berkshire and Litchfield Hills, stripped for charcoal and grazed by sheep, now have some of the most extensive tracts of relatively intact woodlands in the region. The management of these lands is far from ideal, and there is a point beyond which they will have diminishing rather than increasing biological diversity, but the land base is there for better management to enhance.
None of these places is a pristine wilderness, and indeed it is not only rural areas that have experienced this phenomenon. A Yahoo news story yesterday described the return of wolves to abandoned industrial areas in eastern Germany.
"It's a surprising comeback in one of the world's leading industrial nations where 82 million people are squeezed into a country the size of the U.S. state of Montana. The wolves, who arrived from Poland or other neighboring countries, live in a largely vacant area of abandoned strip mines and vacated troop training grounds southeast of Berlin. They serve as a living testament to the profound changes taking place in eastern Germany, once a center of industry and mining, now fallen on hard times.Other species, like the crane and the white-tailed eagle -- have also flourished in the east as the human population decreases - an unintended result of German unification in 1990.
'The wolves were gone for over 100 years and first started coming back a while after the Berlin Wall fell,'said Matthias Freude, head of the Brandenburg state environmental office, who estimates there are now about 20 wolves in two packs in Germany. 'They swam across the Neise river or walked across the ice in winter,' he added. 'There are hardly any people left there now. The wolves' biggest predator is hunters. But it's against the law to hunt them in Germany.'"
As I have recently discussed here, large carnivores returning to areas with competing human interests pose a significant challenge to conservationists and those who live on the land and are directly affected by conservation policy for these species. The wolf of German folklore, as culturally significant as it may be, is nonetheless not this modern wolf, back from the land of fable and establishing packs southeast of Berlin. As wolf habitat and ranges increase, so too will the pressures to safeguard the interests of people. Even a country with green legislation and environmental safeguards will have a difficult time promoting the interests of wolves in suburbanizing areas when the fear of a tragedy or an actual human fatality results from their presence. There will likely be more available habitat that wolves could use in Germany and elsewhere than there will be tolerance for them occupying it. That will also be the case in the coming years for black bears in the Berkshires and wolves in Montana.
While it may be attractive to some conservationists to place strong legal safeguards in place for areas or species conserved by default, that strategy alone is unlikely to succeed. Only the difficult work of reengaging people with these places and species in ways that foster a shared sense of their value, along with tangible benefits for those living closest to and reliant on these resources, is likely to be successful in the long term.