NERINGA, Lithuania - For the past three-and-a-half months, there's been one depressing two-minute stretch on the main road of the Lithuanian section of the Curonian Spit where you can see the still-untouched remains of a massive forest fire. There's one skeletal corpse of a tree covered in soot after another, separated only by blackened ground. It goes on for several hectares.
Those two minutes may be shocking (if for nothing else than for their eerie beauty), but they make up a fraction of the full hour-long ride between Smiltyne and Nida, the two major towns that bookend the Lithuanian section of the Curonian Spit.
Most of the unnatural forest of mountain pines that covers the spit remains safe. The Homeric sand dunes, the island's most famous attraction, may be slowly drifting into the sea, but at least they appear, to the naked eye, intact. And the oil platform built 22 kilometers off the coast of the island by the Russian company Lukoil in 1983, hasn't caused any spills yet.
No one knows for sure what caused the forest fire back in May, according to Ruta Baskyte, the director of the State Service of Protected Areas in the Ministry of Environment. "There had been a drought for two months. Maybe someone came through and lit a cigarette."
At the moment Baskyte and her team is still discussing ways to solve the problem, but no one knows for sure what to do. "Do we replant the whole area? Do we just plant trees in small groups?"
The forest fire served as just one more trial in the long history of the Curonian Spit. After centuries of deforestation, reforestation, sand drifts, colonizers and tourists, the small strip of land Lithuania shares with Russia on its coast remains, in the words of Ina Marciulionyte, Lithuania's ambassador to UNESCO, "a very fragile site."
A history of violence
The Curonian Spit's environmental problems can be traced back to the 17th century, when shipbuilders raided its vast natural forests.
It may have all been a boom time for Klaipeda's shipbuilding industry but those trees had helped settle the soil of the spit. When the trees were cut down, villages were left defenseless against sand storms. By the end of the 18th century, the towns were covered in sand and the narrow strip of land was little more than a desert with some impoverished inns.
The spit's first environmental saviors showed up in the 19th century. George David Kuwert, the owner of a post station in Nida, began the spit's reforestation. He had a hard time, according to a popular guidebook, figuring out what to plant in the desert sand. He settled on mountain pines, which don't require rich soil.
A walk through the forest would be a little monotonous for a botanist. There's just a repetition of the same trees over and over again, planted at appropriate manmade distances of a meter or two from each other. "The grass vegetation under the trees is very poor," says Baskyte, and indeed one finds oneself walking on dead brownish stems and dirt. There's not much "biological diversity," she says.
The forests are peaceful and provide a buzzing silence. It's nature courtesy of German ingenuity.
And then there are the sand dunes.
Deserts have a way of reorienting your perspective from one moment to the next. A few steps up one of the small hills or down a giant slope in the Valley of the Dead by Nida completely wrecks your sense of place. The lines of the horizon change. You find yourself moving from a giant desert expanse to a small cove in between two hills.
The acoustics of the dunes are such that you can hear the voices of German tourists or Lithuanian or Latvian day-trippers from far off. But the sounds are distant and they only add to the majesty of the moment. The dunes in the Curonian Spit have the virtue of providing a mystical experience right next to civilization.
The Prussians spent much of the 19th century "taming" the dunes, building protective sea walls, trying to find ways to make sure that the dunes did not engulf Nida the way they had the spit's smaller villages a century before.
Today the Grey Dunes, outside Juodkrante, another of the spit's tourist towns, are more or less settled, though they still suffer erosion.
But the dunes at the Valley of the Dead are still drifting into the sea. They have sunk 15 meters in the last 25 years. They could disappear entirely, Baskyte says, in anywhere from 20 to 50 years.
During the Soviet era, according to Baskyte, scientists hypothesized building a "giant blower" on the coast of the Curonian Lagoon that "could take sand which was blown to the lagoon back to the top of the dunes."
It sounds like something out of a Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.
"It was a kind of fantastic technocratic proposal," she says. "Natural scientists didn't approve of this idea."
We're a little smarter now. And the question of preserving the dunes seems to linger on how much vegetation these dunes should or could take.
Right now Baskyte says experts are unsure how much vegetation to plant in the Grey Dunes. If they let vegetation grow freely, the entire area could be covered in forest. At the moment they are planting small clusters of trees.
The Valley of the Dead may call for different measures. "Do we need to stabilize the land by planting vegetation?" she asks. At the moment her department has no concrete plans.
It would be a shame if the only way to save the dunes would be to suffocate them in dull greenery.
War without end
Baskyte says the Soviets were more or less good to the Curonian Spit. "It was right on the border, and so it was closely monitored."
But then the Lukoil platform was built right off its coast. Though it's two decades old it has been dominating much of the discussion of the spit's preservation at the UNESCO level.
The danger the oil platform posed reached a much higher profile two years ago, when UNESCO questioned whether its presence would mean the Curonian Spit would have to be placed on its endangered sites list.
If an oil spill did occur, according to Baskyte, only the beach front of the spit, which faces out to the Baltic Sea and the fore dune ridge, another of the spit's manmade elements, would be affected. The Great Dune Ridge on the other side of the spit would be more or less unaffected. Essentially, the oil platform endangers the spit's pretty but unremarkable beachfront.
In the end, Russian and Lithuanian authorities reached an agreement and the Curonian Spit was saved from being placed on UNESCO's list of endangered sites.
"We have reached an agreement for all sides to monitor the oil platform," says Marciulionyte. "We have not agreed over who will pay for an oil spill should one occur."
The Curonian Spit was formed by massive sea winds 10,000 years ago, which makes it a little younger than mankind. So it is only fitting that its story should be of humans taming unpredictable natural processes to suit their own desires. Given its history, you could say that even the spit's most deceptively natural areas are really monuments to human striving. If the forests aren't as breathtaking as the sand dunes, blame that on the limits of human greatness.
A cigarette match could destroy much of the forest. A few changes in sea winds could send the deadly oil to shore. And then there is powerful, indifferent Nature, which could swallow up the most beautiful part of the Curonian Spit within a few short decades.