Enjoying and protecting wild Croatia

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 06/20/2015

Last week I left the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik, saying goodbye to Croatia and to the 17 other hikers, bikers and kayakers I met during our two-week Sierra Club International outing, “Jewels of Croatia: Forests, Rivers and Islands.”

 The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

Starting in the capital city of Zagreb, our group, led by two Croatian guides, would travel by van roughly north to south, stopping to experience the country’s vastly different landscapes. We would hike through alpine meadows of the Velebit Mountains, cycle through valleys graced with small towns and vineyards, kayak on crystalline rivers, and sail to some of the 1,200 islands along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Before we left Zagreb, a scientist named Mate Zec briefed us about the natural areas we were about to see. Zec is employed by Association Biom, a nonprofit based in Zagreb and affiliated with Birdlife International, a nonprofit that manages 6,000 natural areas in 47 countries.

Croatia is about the size of West Virginia. Some 25 percent of its land is arable farmland and about 40 percent is forested. Fifty percent of Croatia’s landmass is limestone karst. Riddled with caves and underground cavities, limestone karst stores and exudes enormous amounts of water in the form of abundant rivers and waterfalls. Croatia’s coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot and dry summers, while its mountains, the Dinaric Alps, have cold winters and hot summers.

 Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

These different climates and landscapes have produced remarkable biodiversity in Croatia. The network of subterranean limestone caves host species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Croatia’s forests and grasslands are home to many different species including brown bears, wolves and lynxes. But many of these species, especially the native lynx, are threatened.

According to Association Biom, 8.5 percent of Croatia’s land is designated as some type of protected area. There are both national parks and regional “nature parks,” which are managed differently. Admission tickets to the more popular parks provide an important source of income for park management. The famous Plitvice National Park, for example, draws more than a million visitors a year.

Tourism accounts for about 15 percent of Croatia’s GDP. Croatia’s population of 4.5 million has an average per capita income of $17,800. So, income from tourism is especially important.

But tourism can also create problems for natural areas. For example, Zec explains that a few “rich parks” with high numbers of tourists have no daily limits to the number of visitors. Later, when our group visited Plitvice National Park, we found that even prior to peak season, we had to move single-file along the trails, reminiscent of U.S. national parks like Yosemite at peak season.

Zec said that park management varies greatly throughout Croatia due to political influence. The result is that parks throughout the country have different levels of habitat protection, policies and investments in research.

Land-protection policies may be changing in Croatia, though, since Croatia joined the European Union (EU) in 2013. That’s because the EU has relatively high standards for protection of natural areas and endangered species that member countries must address.

Zec identified some threats to Croatia’s biodiversity on land outside of protected areas. These include increased development along the coast for tourism and increased construction of wind and hydro-power plants. While alternative energy projects help combat climate change, wind farms can spell death for migratory birds and dams can impact freshwater ecosystems.

Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.




Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.