Turn Your Money Green
Romania’s Carpathian mountains are among Europe’s last great wildernesses. But their future depends in part on an emerging class of wildlands philanthropists, says Clive Aslet
YOU CAN FEEL awfully lonely in the Carpathian mountains. Even the sheepdogs, if you walk up through the tapestry of wildflowers that form the meadows, are best avoided; they are a fierce breed, designed to keep off wolves. You can stumble upon a brown bear, or simply get lost. Don’t think you’ll get a mobile phone signal in these parts; at the best of times, the villages, built of wood and lime plaster, where it’s better to bump over the unmade-up roads in a horse and cart than rattle to pieces in a car, are not technologically sophisticated, and few people come into the woods. The tracks trail ambiguously through the fallen beech leaves. You can’t take your bearings from features in the landscape, because you can’t see anything except trees. And the trees go on for ever. Following the mountains, they arc their way across several national frontiers, the largest and most species-rich area of forest being in Romania.
In a country such as the UK, one of the least forested in Europe, woods tend to exist in pockets, rubbing shoulders with other activities. You’re never very far away from the sound of a road; the boy scout who drops his compass can use the GPS on his games console. It isn’t like that in Romania; the Carpathian forest is unimaginably huge. It’s wild in a way that is now very rare in Europe. But even Romania’s membership of the European Union, with its raft of environmental legislation, hasn’t safeguarded its future. This has convinced some conservationists that they have to take action themselves.
The concept of what Tom Butler, in a spectacular book on the subject, recently called ‘wildlands philanthropy’ began in the US, but, as the world’s population heads towards nine billion, it has an application around the globe. It may be that Europe sacrificed most of its wild areas long ago, but that only makes those that do survive more important. Paul Lister, heir to one of the co-founders of the furniture company MFI, has established the European Nature Trust, aka TENT, to save them. Romania’s Carpathian forest is top of the list.
‘We’ve got to get you into a helicopter,’ he declares as he shows me the forest. A bit extreme, I think as he pushes me into the machine, but he’s right. When the cheerfully buccaneering pilot wobbles the craft into the sky and swings out over the foothills of the mountain range, west of Brasov, I feel I have suddenly become part of The Lord of the Rings. Beneath the bubble of the cockpit is what could be one of the primordial magic landscapes of Middle Earth: an endless bristling mat of spiky pines, mixed with the fluffy canopies of beech and other deciduous trees. Trees grow quickly in the rain shadow of the mountains: blisteringly hot in summer, but usually damp. There are no habitations except the occasional shepherd’s hut. No roads. It provides a habitat for the sort of mammals — wolves, bear, lynx — that Britain lost in the Middle Ages.
BUT THE FOREST is not entirely pristine, and that is why Lister has brought me here. He has been visiting Romania since the Eighties, when he bought timber (from, as he stresses, sustainable sources). That provided an introduction to the forests, which, due to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s love of hunting, were one of the few things that were run well under Communism. Since Ceausescu’s fall in 1989, forestry has been a low priority for the Romanian government. Corruption is rife, blind eyes are turned. The villages have no middle-class, National Trust types to create a stink when illegal logging takes place. From the air you can see the consequences. It may be that logging companies have to build their own roads into the forest, but some hillsides have been shaved clean.
This torments Lister. His first foray into landscape conservation was in Scotland, where he bought the 23,000-acre Alladale estate. Although conventional opinion sees the glens and rushing streams, the broad valleys and purple heather as beautiful, they are nothing like as rich in species or interest as they used to be. ‘Two centuries of over-grazing by sheep and deer have stripped them of so much of their biodiversity,’ says Lister. ‘They used to be teeming with it.’
So he set out to ‘re-wild’ his property. European elk, wild cat and wisent (European bison) have arrived. Wild boar act as four-legged rotovators, loosening the stranglehold that heather and bracken would otherwise have on the soil. Wolves might be reintroduced, if he can persuade neighbouring landowners to join with him — the advantage being that wolves provide a natural and efficient way of keeping deer numbers to a sustainable level.
Through TENT, Lister is rallying a phalanx of other HNWs to fund educational projects to convince Bucharest of the worth of the forest, rural development schemes that will enable local people to see the forests as an asset worth preserving, and a fund that will be directed towards preserving key areas through buying them. To Lister, the Carpathians are the other side of the biodiversity coin: Scotland has been stripped of many of its natural glories, Romania is royally clothed in habitats. But without protection and planning, the latter could be lost. The Carpathian forest ‘should be the European equivalent of Yosemite or the Yellowstone National Park’, he says.
The use of transatlantic examples is telling. Wilderness conservation began in 19th-century America, when artists and writers, astounded by the virgin landscapes, sought to preserve these natural wonders, immanent, as they saw it, with the presence of God. This met opposition from those who believed property owners should be free to do as they liked, but Abraham Lincoln rose above it; he gave the Yosemite Valley to the state of California and it later became the first national park.
OVER THE PAST twenty years, the tradition has been continued by Kristine and Doug Tompkins, who have used the fortune built from the Esprit clothing brand to buy over two million acres of land in Patagonia. While most of their acquisitions are intended to remain parkland, a proportion comprises degraded farmland which they restore and farm sustainably, creating jobs for the community and products which it can sell.
As philanthropy increases and engages the imaginations of business leaders and industrialists — and as private wealth in the global economy is accumulated on a previously unprecedented scale — wildlands philanthropy is becoming less of a rich man’s hobby and more of a worldwide movement. The San Francisco businessman Richard Goldman has saved the forest on Yakobi Island from the pulp mills that have received so much of the timber from the rest of Alaska. Sea lions are given carte blanche to haul themselves on to the beaches, brown bears are invited to make a feast of the salmon.
Gordon Moore, co-founder of the silicon-chip maker Intel, has funded land acquisitions in the Amazon basin by the Amazon Conservation Association. The ACA is developing a field station, offering fellowships to Peruvian academics and helping local people to develop sustiainable income streams. Arizona, Tierra del Fuego, the Gulf of California, the lakes of Maine — all have inspired the generosity of individuals who perhaps subscribe to Lincoln’s dictum: ‘Laws change; people die; the land remains.’ Let’s hope that, in Romania, the forest remains, too.