Huge Romanian rewildling project aims to create 'European Yellowstone'

Earth Island Journal, 11 May 2015

In an ambitious new rewilding project, conservationists hope to create a ‘European Yellowstone’ amid the beech woods, spruce plantations and alpine pastures of Romania’s Fagaras Mountains. Backed by wealthy donors, the nonprofit Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is buying land for what it hopes will ultimately become a vast national park.

So far FCC has spent €45 million buying 40,000 acres of land, but the group’s ultimate goal is to protect 500,000 acres, which it then plans to donate back to the people of Romania. Although FCC is buying some of this land, the group also hopes to convince some stakeholders — such as the state and other local landowners— to put their land into the park. FCC’s largest backer is the Wyss Foundation, a philanthropic group founded by the Swiss medical devices billionaire Hansorg Wyss, which has already contributed $175 million to protect 14 million acres of wild land in the American West.

The Fagaras Mountains lie at the southern end of the 1,000-mile long Carpathian range, which stretches across east and central Europe. The Carpathians are a stronghold for Europe’s three big predators — the grey wolf, brown bear, and Eurasian lynx — as well as the continent’s most extensive old growth forests.

Europe, a continent with little wilderness left, has seen a recent surge in rewilding projects. In Germany, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is returning vast old military bases to the wilderness; in Ireland, the state forestry company Coillte is planning to rewild pine and spruce plantations in County Mayo, while in Scotland, the group Trees for Life is restoring Caledonian pine forest to the Highlands. The nonprofit Rewilding Europe is also working to restore large-scale wild ecosystems at eight different sites across the continent.

But national parks in Europe tend to be small, and due to its sheer size, FCC’s project is one of the most ambitious. The Fagaras Mountains rise 8,346 feet to Vârful Moldoveanu, Romania’s tallest peak. Beech woods cover the lower slopes of these mountains, while there are mixed forests further up and alpine pastures above the tree line. But in many places, natural forests have been replaced by spruce plantations.

FCC plan’s to rewild these monocultures. In some places, this will just mean standing back and letting nature take over, but in the densest plantations the group will thin the forest and introduce native trees like sycamore, elm and fir. FCC's director, Christoph Promberger, envisions a vast national park that includes core wilderness areas and adjoining buffer zones where some traditional activities like grazing and hunting are allowed.

Promberger says FCC has already managed to drive highly organized illegal logging gangs — which he describes as “real mafia” — out of the region. He sayssuch groups are well connected politically.  “We’ve been fighting some tough fights against these guys,” he says. “But you’ve got to stand your ground. And so far we’ve won every battle.”

The tougher fight could be convincing local communities to get behind the park. FCC has tried to learn from The North Face co-founder Doug Tompkins' experiences in conservation work. Tompkins has attracted some criticism for using his private wealth to buy huge swathes of land in Chile and Argentina for conservation, ultimately taking control over the land away from local communities.

When Earth Island Journal spoke to him, Promberger had just returned from a study trip to visit three reserves founded by Tompkins in Chile and Argentina, where he saw the campgrounds, lodges and visitor centers designed to draw in eco-tourism and bring cash to local communities.

Much like the Patagonia region of South America, few people live in the interior of the Fagaras Mountains, but outlying areas are home to small populations. “Traditionally it’s a rather poor area, people live off agriculture and forestry,” Promberger says.

The way to sell the project to local communities, Promberger believes, isn’t to present a vision for a huge national park — but to explain what's wrong with clear-felling and unsustainable logging, and offer better alternatives. “You have to convince people eventually that such a national park is to their advantage, that it brings them a better life, that it's not a threat to them but rather than opportunity,” he says.

Promberger also thinks it’s essential that protected areas bring in cash, both to keep the park running and to ensure local people benefit from its existence. FCC’s long-term aim is to develop ‘conservation enterprises’ that boost the local economy while supporting conservation. The group is drawing up plans for huts to attract wildlife-watching tourists, and is hoping to open a wilderness lodge in the next few years, too.

But Promberger also says that traditional enterprises, conducted in a sustainable way, can support local communities. For example, if raw timber can be processed locally — rather than shipped out of the region — more money will stay in the area, locals will earn more from each tree cut down, and there will be less pressure to log excessively.

The ultimate goal is to donate the national park back to the people of Romania, but only when the state can run it properly. The country currently has 13 national parks, but Promberger says they are poorly funded, and have just enough cash to survive.

Looking ten years into the future, he envisions new growth on clear-felled slopes in the Fagaras Mountains, spruce monocultures turning back to natural forest, and overgrazed pastures returning to health — plus a thriving and more sustainable local economy.

When complete, he imagines this national park becoming a "European Yellowstone” — not because the wildlife will be similar, but because Europe needs an iconic park.  “If you think about national parks in North America, everybody points to Yellowstone,” he says. “The same with Serengeti or Kruger in Africa, or Torres del Paine in South America. In Europe we have a lot of national parks, but there’s not really one that sticks out.”

Promberger's long-term vision is clear:  “We want to try to create, really, the big European national park.”