Refocusing the objectives of protected areas: An interview with Natura 2000 expert Wolfgang Suske

IUCN is currently carrying out a feasibility study to assess whether the IUCN Green List Sustainability Standard, a global benchmark for the effective management of protected and conserved areas, can be applied to the Natura 2000 network. In this interview, Wolfgang Suske, an expert in protected area management, talks about his concerns with conservation governance and how refocusing the objectives of protected areas could help to achieve better outcomes.

Wolfgang Suske

This is the first in a series of interviews with Natura 2000 experts as part of the LIFE Green List for N2K project. Our interviewee comes from Vienna, Austria, and has extensive experience in Natura 2000 site management. He recently became involved in the Green List for N2K project as a member of the European Core Working Group, with the goal of adapting the IUCN Green List Sustainability Standard to the Natura 2000 network.

Wolfgang’s career in protected areas stretches back some three decades to when he was hired in 1990 as a young landscape ecology graduate from Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences by the government of the Lower Austria state. His first big assignment, then as an ecology expert in the agriculture department, proved testing as he was asked to negotiate with a group of farmers concerned with conservation plans in Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), forested highlands in Vienna and Lower Austria.

The encounter proved to be a lesson in conservation management. One sentence in particular from the discussions remains inked in his memory: “we have nothing against nature”, the farmers told him, “but we have something against nature protection.” This paradoxical phrase illustrates the often uneasy relationship between conservationists and farmers during the 1990s, when clashes were not infrequent. Wolfgang arrived at Wienerwald full of ideas from his studies about how he was going to help to preserve the natural environment; however, for farmers, and also some local residents, though they may have wished to protect nature, protected sites were areas managed “by somebody in Vienna” and signalled a loss of control over their surroundings. “That was the first impression that I had of protected areas”, he says, “and it left a deep impression.”

Wolfgang has carried that lesson with him since. In 2004, he left the state authority and started his own company, Suske Consulting, but has continued to work with local farmers and community groups on conservation management, particularly in southeastern Europe, with projects in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. For example, in 2015 he helped to produce a brochure on farmers from different regions of Croatia, one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in Europe. The brochure, ‘My little piece of land’, part of a sustainable rural development project funded by the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU), celebrates and seeks to impart lessons from the deep connection these Croatian farmers have with their local environment and the many species that inhabit it with them.

This extensive experience in different parts of Europe and many years thinking about protected areas has given Wolfgang a questioning disposition. For example, despite the damage they can cause to their non-native ecosystems, Wolfgang is somewhat sceptical about the constant push to eradicate invasive alien species. He believes that governments and conservationists are often swimming against the tide and their efforts could be refocused towards more manageable targets. For Wolfgang, governments should assess what they can and cannot influence and devise management plans accordingly. “Sometimes I have the impression that you want to keep the landscape as it is and to put all the effort into that.”

Conservation work in Neusiedlersee-Leithagebirge national park in Austria. Photo: © Kathrin Horvath. Photo: Christian Komposch

 

For Wolfgang, local people can serve an important purpose in managing the land in rural areas. He is concerned about the ongoing depopulation of rural areas and the impacts stemming from large tracts of land being bought up for intensive agriculture. “This is a topic which we can influence much more, with funding programmes, rules and other initiatives than the depopulation of extensive areas.” However, it can be hard to avoid such an exodus. “It is impossible to solve that in sites. It needs much brighter strategies, on the level of the province or nation,” he says.

Supported by experiences like the ones in Wienerwald and Croatia, he believes that much more should be done in Europe to involve local people in the management of protected areas. “I would put a lot of effort into this topic: in governance, in communication, in giving more responsibility to people in the regions,” he says. A complaint that he hears frequently is that locals feel “helpless” or “frightened”, unsure of what they can and cannot do in their local area. He argues that by involving people more in the management of sites, locals will feel like they have more of stake in their surroundings, and that this may lead to better conservation outcomes. “If the state alone says it is responsible then the locals will just wait or do nothing or they will do their own thing, because the responsibility is elsewhere,” he says.

In the early 1990s the EU established Natura 2000, a network of protected areas introduced under the Birds and Habitats Directives. According to Wolfgang, this development has been positive, in particular because it introduced a common set of rules and definitions. “If I say ‘conservation status’ or ‘good conservation status for species’, 28 countries know approximately what that means.” He also praises Article 6 of the Habitats Directive, which introduces a requirement for authorities in all EU countries to conduct a nature impact assessment before carrying out any plan or project affecting a special conservation area. This, he argues, has been important in ensuring that similar standards for the management of sites are maintained across Europe.

However, he concedes the system is not perfect. “If Europe or the European Commission could set up the Natura 2000 network again, and repeat the whole process again like Groundhog Day, I think they would have to put more effort in involving the different stakeholders. Not doing that was a mistake.” The interpretation manuals made available by the European Commission were a positive development, he says, but “they came, not too late, but they came late.”

Wolfgang believes that many of the older EU Member States could have benefited from more legal and communications support at the start of the Natura 2000 initiative, such as the new EU entrants and some neighbourhood countries have received since. He argues this could have helped to improve the public image of the network, which he laments remains “not positive” in older Member States, including Germany and his home country, Austria.

It is these concerns and perceived deficiencies that led to his interest in the IUCN Green List Sustainability Standard. He argues that the standard provides the EU with an opportunity to improve the implementation of the rules governing Natura 2000 sites while also plugging holes in the various sites’ management practices. “It fills in a lot of gaps that we have with Natura 2000: in management, governance, and participation,” he says.

Neusiedlersee-Leithagebirge Nature Park, Austria, a Natura 2000 site. Photo: © Kathrin Horvath. Photo: Kathrin Horvath

 

Wolfgang insists he does not have a single favourite Natura 2000 site but when pressed he settles on a local example, the Neusiedlersee-Leithagebirge, a partial national park in eastern Austria, which also contains the country’s largest lake. A small part of the park extends into neighbouring Hungary. Wolfgang likes it because of its variety and the diverse array of management activities deployed in the area. It contains dry grassland, woods, as well as many species of birds and insects. The lake is unusual in that it is saline. “There we can really see everything. It’s one of the most interesting sites I’ve worked on.”

You can learn more about the 'Green List for Natura 2000' project here.

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