The government of Albania announced yesterday the creation of Europe’s one and only (for now!) “wild river” national park. The park sets aside nearly 250 miles of the free-flowing, crystal-clear Vjosa river and its major tributaries. Years in the works, Albania created the Vjosa Wild River National Park with NGOs Save the Blue Heart of Europe, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia.
With the project, Albania hopes to protect the roughly 1,000 species of animals that call the river system home. The IUCN has assessed 13 of those species as “globally threatened.” The protection status will also address waste management, deforestation, and water and land pollution along the Vjosa River.
“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country,” Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albanian Minister of Tourism and Environment, said in a press release. “Maybe Albania does not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models of protecting biodiversity and natural assets, and we are proud to announce the creation of this first National Park on one of the last wild rivers in Europe.”
“Now a new phase begins — that of drawing up the management plan to give people the opportunity to build their lives in a sustainable way,” she continued. “This is our vision: sustainable and environmentally responsible development, which protects biodiversity and gives people the opportunity to prosper in their homelands.”
Albania has a population of 2.8 million but attracted over 7.5 million tourists last year, according to The Guardian. So it’s understandable that, through the park, the country hopes to encourage responsible tourism and attract Albanian residents back to the depopulated area.
“This unique collaboration between government, civil society, and business is [a] testament to the power of collective action, and we hope it will inspire others to come together to protect the wild places we have left in a meaningful way,” said Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. “Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever.”
The Vjosa Wild River National Park will open in early 2024. Organizers have a second phase of the project, which will include additional tributaries as well as some private land, planned for future years.
Management Policy and Land Designation
The Vjosa Wild River National Park website states, “A Wild River National Park is a protection concept designed to safeguard rivers and their threatened habitats. Presently, a Wild River National Park is not an official category within the IUCN framework. The Vjosa WRNP is a huge achievement for the Vjosa [River], Albania, and its 1,175 species.”
Basically: The Vjosa is Europe’s first wild river national park, and it shouldn’t be the last.
It could resemble the “wild and scenic rivers” designation in the U.S., which protects certain rivers by prohibiting dams in and around their watersheds. Various other land designations come along with their own rules: Wilderness areas prohibit motorized vehicles, while most national parks don’t allow pets.
The Vjosa is currently undammed from its headwaters in the Pindos Mountains to its termination on the Adriatic coast. As of this writing, spokespeople for the IUCN and Albania’s Ministry of Tourism and the Environment have not responded to a request for further details on management policy.