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Iron Curtain: minefield to greenbelt

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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.

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