A first-time visitor to the Curonian Spit is offered an inspiring view: majestic sand dunes, rising up to 67 metres and, literally, emerging from the blue depths of the sea. The Curonian Spit, a 98-kilometre long peninsula washed by the Baltic Sea on the west and separated from the mainland by the Curonian lagoon to the east, is a superb example of the fine balance between human activity and nature, a masterpiece of functional landscape design on a massive scale. To contemporary human beings, confident in their supremacy over nature, the story of the Curonian Spit teaches a sober lesson. The Spit (with a total area of 180 square kilometres), only 370 metres wide at Šarkuva (now Lesnoe) and never exceeding 3.8 kilometres in its greatest width, at the Horn of Bulvikis, was sculpted by winds and currents about 5,000 years ago. Archaeological findings (especially noteworthy are those of the Lithuanian archaeologist Rimutė Rimantienė) indicate that the peninsula was inhabited at the end of the Neolithic period. Still more numerous finds date from the third and second millennia BC. The forebears of the Baltic tribes are believed to have settled between the parabolic dunes where they could fish and find shelter from the winds.
Today a sun-lit view of wooden farmsteads nestling at the foot of the dunes strikes the visitor as the very image of Arcadia - and yet, it is a very fragile one. Roughly two centuries ago ill-considered human activity destroyed the natural vegetation leaving entire fishermen's villages exposed to windblown sand. The Spit was saved only by a project extending over nearly one century that reintroduced protective layers of grass, shrubs and trees. This work continues to the present day, and will have to go on as long as people want this peninsula for themselves.
The Republic of Lithuania shares the Curonian Spit (the 52-kilometre long northern half) and the responsibility to protect it, with the Kaliningrad enclave of the Russian Federation.
To recognize the unique interaction between people and the environment, as well as the combination of the natural and the cultural heritage, the Curonian Spit, a transboundary site, was inscribed as a cultural landscape on the World Heritage List in 2000. By presenting the nomination, the two governments of Lithuania and of the Russian Federation re-stated their commitment, on the international level, to protect the Spit from destruction by the forces of nature and occasionally by human activity.
Neringa, a paradise for fishermen
According to a Baltic legend, Neringa, a local girl who grew into a giant goddess, built a sand spit to protect the fishermen from the winds from the sea, and this name remains on the Lithuanian part of the peninsula. The indigenous Sambian and Kuršiai tribes, as well as the sixteenth-century German and Lithuanian settlers were predominantly fishermen and remained so until the mid-nineteenth century. Fishing was their trade and way of life and their sensibility was formed in close interaction with nature. The villages and towns of Nida, Preila, Pervalka, Juodkrantė, Alksnynė and Smiltynė have preserved the characteristic layout and architectural features of the nineteenth-century fishermen's settlements. Single-storey wooden structures, gable-roofed and thatched, painted brown, white and blue, and decorated with wood-carved weathervanes are not just pleasing to the eye; they also embody unique ethnocultural values and are protected as immovable cultural properties by the Lithuanian State.
The biggest part of the Neringa (70.1 percent) is covered with forests, predominantly of pine and mountain pine, and numerous species, some rare and found only on the Spit, find a safe haven there. The 'bare' or 'grey' dunes can be seen in the natural reserves of Naglių and Grobsto; the shifting Parnidis dune, a landmark near the town of Nida offers a breathtaking view. Bare dunes are more numerous in the southern part of the peninsula of the Russian Federation. The peninsula is of some strategic importance (a transit road along the peninsula connected Kaliningrad, Klaipėda, Riga, Tallinn and Saint Petersburg) and it changed hands many times. The first dangerous blows to the vulnerable natural site were dealt by the invasion of the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. In the wake of the Seven Year War, aggressive military and economic activity led to the deforestation and erosion of the peninsula. The unstable wind-driven sand threatened to destroy the Spit and the lagoon.
Karvaičiai was one of fourteen fishing settlements buried under the sand in the eighteenth century. Letters and notes by the village pastor record the villagers' hopeless efforts to protect their dwellings from the sand that engulfed them. Digging was useless and they finally surrendered their homes, church, school and even their cemetery to the sands and resettled closer to the lagoon. The Hill of Karvaičiai between Preila and Pervalka marks the location of these dramatic events. Prompted by ingenious foresters, local people decided to contain the deadly winds and the sand. The idea to plant mountain pine trees on the dunes came from Wittenberg University Professor J.D. Titius and Danish dune inspector S. Bjorn. Another key figure in the project was G.D. Kuvertas.
A protective barrier of thick branches and poles was built along the coast at a distance of 50 to 60 metres from the sea to block the sand. The fencing was reinforced by the sand that piled up against it. At subsequent stages sea-matt was planted and shrubs started to grow. The surface of the sand dunes had to be covered in brushwood hurdles and clay or silt had to be added before grass would grow. After a few years, mountain pine imported from Denmark and Switzerland were planted on the dunes. The project was planned over several historical periods by the Prussian, then the German, and finally, the Lithuanian and Russian Governments. Painstaking work by local people, mostly women, should not be forgotten. Nowadays the care of this fragile landscape is entrusted to two national parks, the 'Kuršių Nerija' (established in 1991 in Lithuania) and its counterpart on the southern part, the Russian 'Kurshskaya Kosa' (founded in 1986). According to the specialists from the Kuršių Nerija National Park, the situation on the Spit is stable, yet maintenance of the multi-layered 'pie' of the 'foredune' goes on. The sand plain, called 'palve' stretching on the other side of the barrier, the mountain-like dunes of 'Didysis Kalnagūbris', and the 'horns' of land protruding into the lagoon (18.9 per cent of the area are strict nature reserves; 57.8 per cent cultural landscape reserves) also call for protection. As for the buried villages, they are now considered unique archaeological sites.
'Neringa is a national treasure of Lithuania, and the Curonian Spit, as a World Heritage site, belongs to humanity', says Jonas Glemža, a member of the State Cultural Heritage Commission and an admirer of Neringa. 'I first travelled from Kopgalis all the way to Zelenogradsk in 1962', he recalls. 'At that time there were no asphalt paths in Nida'. The Republic of Lithuania pursues the goal of preservation and protection through a national park operating with a Management Plan since 1994. According to Rūta Baškytė, director of the Protected Territories Service at the Environment Ministry, the status of a national park (versus strict reserve) allows the reconciliation of protection with both cultural and educational tourism and recreational use. The town of Neringa (about 3,000 inhabitants) also enjoys the status of a health resort, and this has multiple implications.
Applicable legislation and the National Development Plan prevent development of the Spit at the expense of protection and preservation goals; all the land is state owned and construction is strictly regulated. The plan does not make provision for any other connection of the peninsula to the mainland so the Spit can only be reached by ferry from Klaipeda (a lovely ride with an escort of seagulls). This naturally slows down the influx of people into the fragile area.
Yet the peninsula is also a lucrative beach location attracting private capital and urban development, under free market conditions that are relatively new to Lithuania. Although a lot of possible conflicts are precluded by zoning, according to Rūta Baškytė, some do arise in the settlements and beach area over infrastructure development and construction. Also, wealthy businessmen from the larger Lithuanian towns would like to make Neringa their summer residence.
'The current Management Plan does have the potential to address the needs of the local population. But it would really be impossible for all Lithuanians to have a summer residence on the Spit', Rūta Baškytė says.
Meanwhile, renovations and adaptations should not disfigure the architectural layout, the sense of proportion, volume and balance of the historical settlements. Preservation of the nineteenth-century villas, built on the Spit when its recreational potential was discovered, is yet another task that the management must assume. To aid the state with its work of protecting and preserving this unique location, a new law on Protection of UNESCO World Heritage sites is being drafted. Jonas Glemža is convinced that the law will give additional impetus to the preservation of all World Heritage sites on the territory of Lithuania, and highlight cultural values by attributing direct responsibility for the site to the local government in their territory. The Commission has also decided to request separate funding for the preservation and management of the World Heritage sites and an increase in state funding for the Kuršių Nerija National Park.
Keeping it off the List of World Heritage in Danger
An additional threat to the Curonian Spit is the oil exploration and production in the Baltic Sea within 22 kilometres of the site (by LUKOIL Kalingradmorneft). This has raised concern about the environmental impact of this activity and has called for ecological security measures. These include a joint Lithuanian-Russian (post-project) environmental impact assessment (EIA), an environment monitoring programme and an intergovernmental agreement on prevention of oil and other hazardous substances pollution along with damage redress.
However, the process has been so lengthy that in 2005 the World Heritage Committee had to set a deadline for the two States Parties to prepare an agreement, failing which the Curonian Spit would be automatically inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
An action plan on the EIA was signed in January 2005, keeping the Curonian Spit off the Danger list, yet the completion of the EIA is falling behind the schedule and is expected only in the summer of 2006. The environmental monitoring programme was launched in late 2004 and is now being implemented. However, the agreement on pollution prevention and damage redress is still being discussed by the intergovernmental group of the Lithuanian-Russian Experts' Commission. The agreement will form the legal basis for a joint crisis management plan in the Baltic Sea. The plan has been drafted and accepted by the specialists, but an agreement on procedures of damage redress still needs an intergovernmental negotiation.