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A Bright Spot in Ukraine – European Wilderness

“Why does Ukraine invest in nature conservation? Simple,” says Max Rossberg of the European Wilderness Society. “These young people are much more educated than we believe and they are realizing that nature has a value. So they are tapping into all of the support programs from US foundations, EU organizations and NGOs to finance these protected areas and create jobs.”

Rossberg and I have been communicating for nearly a year now about the birth of the European Wilderness movement and the role being played by the young European Wilderness Society (EWS).

“Because communism just did not have the resources to cultivate the countryside like we did in the West there is more wilderness left in the east. Germany or France has little left to really save…”

Most of the news coming from Ukraine the past year is far from positive and appears to get more desperate by the day. While American oil and gas companies are quite literally licking their lips over events in Eastern Europe  many young Ukrainians are forging ahead to protect the nature of Ukraine, the wildlands that remain and the economic potential those areas offer.

If there is a bright spot in Ukraine these days, it is wilderness.

nature of ukraine

The Nature of Ukraine Wilderness

When it comes to Ukraine we typically only hear of the main cities, Kyiv (Kiev), Lviv, Odessa and from Crimea.  While westerners are unfortunately learning the names of the cities in the east thanks to the current crisis, the western parts of Ukraine go generally un-noticed and while intact ecosystems are not exclusive to the western part of the country many of the best preserved and protected lands are in that region of the country. We also tend not to consider the fact that Ukraine has a long history of nature protection initiatives that has helped make it the valuable wilderness resource it is today.

For example, right up against the European Union on the western border are the remote Carpathians known for their rugged forests and small population of ethnic Hutsuls.

“In the Ukrainian section of the Carpathians there remain significant pieces and fragments of wilderness forest hosting the spectrum of native carnivores…wolves, bear, lynx, marten.  There is also European bison I believe not to mention all the smaller mammals and insects which need wilderness and old-growth forests to survive,” says Vlado Vancura, the EWS Director Wilderness Development told me.  “It is a genetic bank for native European species that are endangered elsewhere.”

For those reasons the EWS has been working hard to bring those areas into the infant wilderness movement in Europe.

nature of ukraine
Zacharovaniy Kray National Park. Ukraine.

Zacharovaniy Kray National Park director Vasil Mochan recently signed onto the European Wilderness plan committing  1,332 hectares (3,292 acres) to the system.

“My colleagues and I are very pleased that there are such initiative of for the conservation the pristine wilderness areas in Europe and we’re happy to be part of it,” he wrote in an email.

The heavily forested park covers the central part of the Vihorlat-Hutyn volcanic ridge in the eastern Carpathians. The massif is divided from other parts of volcanic ridge by the valleys of the Latorytsya river on the North-West and the Borzhava river on the southeast. This landscape diversity means the park protects an ecological diversity that includes well-preserved beech forests, unique rock landscapes, sphagnum bogs, lakes, ponds and riparian forests. Twenty-nine endangered plant species and thirty-eight endangered animal species call the park home.

“We believe that this is going to be just a very first step and a motivation for other colleagues to form a network of wilderness protected areas in Ukraine,” Rossberg says.

nature of ukraine
Zacharovaniy Kray National Park. Ukraine.

Just a few days ago the Vizhnitsky National Park also passed through the EWS wilderness assessment adding 2,153 hectares (5,320 acres) of “high quality wilderness” to the larger European system.

Wilderness in Enchanted Land Nature Park got legal protection in 2009 with 8,700 hectares (21,500 acres) of wilderness. According to the EWS, other vital fragments of wilderness in Ukraine are protected or will be protected via the Uzhanskij  Nature Reserve , Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, the Gorgany Nature Reserve ( 3,073 hectares, 7,590 acres, of wilderness ) and the Synevyr National Park.

nature of ukraine
Gorgany Nature Reserve. Ukraine

Ukrainian Wilderness offers Economic Development Potential

The economic development potential of nature conservation is quite large. Consider for example that:

Outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse in the United States, each year generating $646 billion in consumer spending and 6.1 million direct jobs.”


“Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.”

According to the Outdoor Recreation Industry Americans purchase gear from hiking boots to fishing poles to vehicles for their trips.  They hire guides, buy guidebooks and spend large amounts on travel expenses. All of this activity creates jobs, supports communities, generates tax  revenue and helps drive the economy.

“Wildlife can be beneficial economically as well. Around the wildlife area there is always a buffer zone which is a destination for recreation,” says Vasil Mochan.  “Since the establishment of the park in May 2009 we’ve had a very hard time economically and politically in Ukraine and that has negatively impacted the number of park visitors.  But still, visitors are spending money in the local community. Unfortunately the community isn’t quite ready for it.”

Ukrainian wilderness advocate Kateryna Strazhyr points out that “in the last years Ukraine has seen a growth in green tourism. It is mainly concentrated in areas adjacent to nature preserves. Measures for the protection of wildlife will attract tourists. Even just out of curiosity. Without a doubt, the flow of tourists provides economic development of the region and improving social standards.”

Economic development can also be a tool to ensure still more protection. But it is a fine line to walk.  The EWS noted on their website that if nature or wilderness becomes simply a commodity and not intrinsically valuable then wildlands lose all meaning and wildlands, once they cease to generate “enough” income according to the book keepers, are open to be swept away and utilized for some new economic gain.  That is not the goal EWS or the Ukrainian wilderness advocates are seeking so they sound a note of caution.

For the members of EWS, wilderness – done right – can be a part of Ukraine’s economic recovery and therefore a part of its political, democratic stabilization.

nature of ukraine
Gorgany Nature Reserve. Ukraine

Where to next for Ukrainian Wilderness?

The EWS is in talks with several other Ukrainian National Parks and protected areas to see how they too will join in the pan-Europan system.  The hope is to create a continent-wide network of protected areas with places like Ukraine as the core banks of genetic diversity. “Ukraine will be one of the top wilderness spots in Europe,” says Rossberg who sees not only conservation of natural treasures and resources but also a lifeline for economic development and a life-spark for real democracy.

“It will hopefully seize the opportunity to invest in ecotourism concepts to assist the economy to overcome the past regardless of the current political turmoil. We will assist in the development of management training programs, sustainable development plans and protection of the natural wonders of the Ukraine.   But we need the financial support of the west and specially the USA to help the Ukrainians to realize those opportunities.”

“The key,” he says, “is that there be money not only for weapons but also for projects of  civic society… because that defines a society’s core values and norms…”


nature of ukraine
Zacharovaniy Kray National Park. Ukraine.



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