How a Small European Country Is Setting the Standard for Environmentalism

How a Small European Country Is Setting the Standard for Environmentalism

Why you should care

Slovenia may be tiny, but it boasts the highest portion of protected land in all of Europe. 

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Lush green grass wet with morning dew blankets the rolling hills for miles. A wreath of mountains kisses the sky in the distance, their peaks covered with sparkling white snow. Towering pine trees dot the landscape as far as the eye can see, and birds sing overhead.

No, this isn’t a scene from The Sound of Music — but it could be. In fact, those mountains in the distance are the Kamnik-Savinja Alps in Slovenia — not too far from the Bavarian Alps where the opening sequence of the Julie Andrews classic was filmed. And this stunning valley isn’t the only place with a dreamlike setting in the country.

More than half of Slovenia — 53.6 percent, to be exact, compared with 13 percent in the U.S. — consists of protected land.

This tiny Adriatic nation boasts the highest proportion of protected land in Europe and the second highest in the world (after Venezuela), which it has achieved through a combination of sustainable agricultural practices, legislation and community involvement.

Maintaining this level of environmentalism isn’t easy, especially because some of the protected land is privately owned. Communication between the government and landowners is essential, but agreeing on best practices can be a nightmare. Still, Slovenia’s environmental practices can serve as a handbook for other nations hoping to preserve natural spaces, especially at a time when climate change increasingly threatens to degrade habitats around the world.

Smaller than the state of New Jersey, Slovenia has more than 40 regional parks and 20,000 different plants and animals, and forests cover 60 percent of the land area. Slovenians have a long tradition of environmentalism, says Peter Skoberne, head of the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning in Ljubljana. The first nature reserve was established in 1892; the first nature conservation program came into existence in 1920. “Being proud of this heritage [means] we are responsible to pass it in good condition to next generations,” says Skoberne.

Luckily, Slovenia’s protected land maintains itself economically — the majority of the country’s 4 million annual tourists visit protected spaces. The areas that permit human activity offer hiking trails, picnic areas and plenty of sweeping Alpine views to photograph or simply stare at in awe. Tourism in Slovenia generates 9 percent of the gross domestic product and sustains 52,000 jobs throughout the country. That revenue provides the country with enough money to care for the protected land, ensuring tourists come back each year.

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A map of protected areas in Slovenia.

Still, money can’t protect everything. Research shows the number of plant and animal species in Slovenia continues to decline. Of 3,266 different types of ferns and seed plants in Slovenia, 19 percent are on the European Red List of threatened species, and more than half of the country’s animal species also made the list. This is what Skoberne and his colleagues are working to prevent. Through education and outreach — comprehensive information on their website, guided tours, brochures and courses — they struggle to educate the public on the challenges that remain.

Even “protected” is a loose term — there are many different categories of protection and management goals under the umbrella of Slovenia’s conservation efforts. Core zones of Triglav National Park and the nature reserves have strict provisions that prohibit human activity of any kind, while other areas allow visitors under certain conditions.

Research by a team of Australian, Canadian and American scientists recently revealed that one-third of the globe’s protected spaces may be under encroachment from people and industry, meaning even protected land is not necessarily as safe as it might seem. And with high ozone levels reported in America’s national parks — due to pollution by nearby power plants, cars and industrial machinery — declaring land protected may not be enough to actually protect it.

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