Attila Fersch revs a Land Rover down a poorly tended Hungarian road, swerving to avoid ruts and other obstacles before braking to a stop 100 feet short of the border with Austria. On the other side, three armed Austrian guards watch his approach.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Fersch's actions might have gotten him shot. After all, this deserted stretch of land used to be part of the Iron Curtain, a 4,000-mile network of barbed-wire fences, walls, and minefields peppered with motion sensors, guard towers, and bunkers. The no man's land between the curtain and the border was a heavily patrolled "death strip" 30 to 4,000 yards wide that slashed Europe in two.
"If you so much as touched the fence, you would set off flares and soldiers would come," Fersch says.
Today, though, the Austrian guards wave as they spot the logo of Ferto-Hansag National Park on Fersch's truck, and he hops out without incident. Here on the Hungarian side of the border, Fersch is the only authority figure for miles, and he's a park ranger, not a border guard. That's because this section of the former Iron Curtain is now a park, welcoming visitors rather than shooting at them.
Now other parts of the "death strip" may be on their way to becoming part of a continent-spanning greenbelt. For the past two years, a coalition of environmental and community development groups has pushed to turn the Iron Curtain zone into a mosaic of parks, nature preserves, and organic farms stretching from the Arctic shores of Finland and Russia to the arid frontier between Bulgaria and Greece.
"The idea is to interlink the needs of people and nature, because they're not incompatible," says Andrew Terry of the IUCN-World Conservation Union, an organization in Gland, Switzerland, that is coordinating the project. "Protected areas should be places that allow humans and wildlife to live together."
The greenbelt isn't starting from scratch. Since 1989, governments have created a series of parks along the frontier, led by Germany, which has already protected more than half of the former inter-German border area. Finland and Russia have created the largest protected area in Europe with a pair of national parks spanning their shared Arctic frontier. Other parks link Austria with the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Here on the shores of the shallow, reed-bordered Lake Ferto, Hungarian park officials and their colleagues at Austria's Neusiedler See National Park coordinate management of fish, wildlife, farms, forests - and vacationing families, bicyclists, and student groups. Inside the park, farmers tend hundreds of gray cattle in restored grasslands favored by herons.
There's also a recent historical attraction: a monument and a series of interpretive signs strung along the former Iron Curtain here in Fertorakos that draw thousands of visitors each year. It was at this remote border crossing that Hungary allowed hundreds of East Germans to flee west in August 1989, setting in motion a series of events that culminated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall three months later. But even before that day, the Hungarian portion of the frontier was more open than that of its harder-line Communist neighbors.
"Unlike other parts of the frontier zone, this area was not a completely empty place," says Laszlo Karpati, director of the Hungarian park, who points out that there were some agricultural fields and a small village, Fertoujlak, inside the zone. "We have been able to build on this history to balance nature protection and local development."
It's a model greenbelt organizers would like to replicate in the swaths of former borderland between national parks and nature reserves. Mr. Terry envisions a bottom-up approach, with farmers and other landowners voluntarily participating in programs to use their land in an ecologically friendly manner. His organization is busy identifying possible projects, securing funding, and putting together a land-use map of the vast corridor.
The greenbelt follows the Russo-Finnish border, skips over the Baltic Sea to the former dividing line between East and West Germany and the Western borders of former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It then splits: One fork follows Bulgaria's southern frontier, the other follows the Macedonia-Greece border and then encircles Albania, whose Communist leaders feared invasions from all sides.
But there are plenty of obstacles to be negotiated. Not all of the 18 nations on the route get along as well as Hungary and Austria. Greece has a testy relationship with Macedonia and Albania, while Croatia and Serbia were on opposite sides of the Yugoslav civil war. At a local level, some landowners dislike the program and the restrictions it asks them to undertake, like forsaking the use of chemical pesticides. Funds to organize and promote the scheme have to be secured from national and regional governments, international donor agencies, and environmental groups.
"This would have been much easier to accomplish in 1989 or 1990, when most of the border was still undisturbed," says Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, who says large parts of the zone have since been put into commercial use. "They may be closing the proverbial stable door after the horses have left."
But Fersch, the Hungarian park ranger, points out that much of the park's land used to be part of Communist-era collective farms, which drained wetlands and plowed grasslands to make way for intensive farming operations.
Now much of that landscape has been restored through the joint efforts of Hungarian and Austrian farmers and park rangers. Near Fertoujlak, some 7,400 acres of natural grasslands have been restored, providing habitat for partridge and herons and grazing land for native gray cattle.
"It's good for growing grain and beef," Fersch says, "but it's also good for insects, birds, and nature."
The Iron Curtain is gone, but some highly militarized borders remain. Among the most dangerous:
• Korean demilitarized zone: The truce line between North and South is 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide with fences, barbed wire, and hundreds of thousands of troops on either side. Untouched for 50 years, the narrow strip of land has become home to two of the world's most endangered birds: white-naped and red-crowned cranes.
• India-Pakistan: Having fought three wars with its neighbor, India has constructed a fence over roughly half the 1,800-mile border, including the contested Line of Control.
• Golan Heights: A thin zone 70 miles long separates Syrian and Israeli troops in the heavily fortified mountain region.
Sources: "Troubled Spots" (2000); National Geographic; CNN; Washington Post