The history of the development of the Lithuanian system of protected areas is long and complex; its beginning goes back to ancient times.
The history of the Lithuanian system of protected areas can be divided into six periods that are closely related to the development of the state and society, the essential changes in the social and economic relations, the use of nature and cultural development. These periods are the following: 1) old Baltic, 2) feudal, 3) interwar Lithuania, 4) early Soviet period, 5) late Soviet period, 6) current.
Old Baltic period
The knowledge about the relationship of our ancestors – ancient Aistians – with the environment and their attitude to nature is available in the chronicles. In the first millennium, the ancient Aistians demonstrated evident respect towards nature, its manifestations and objects. The first tradition of the development of protected areas was sacral and linked to praying to nature. The oldest period of the development of protected areas is the stage of sacred places. The tradition of cultish sacred woods, worshipped sacred trees, stones, ponds or other natural objects that could not be destroyed – or even visited – was forming. The understanding of the first protected areas differs from the contemporary one considerably; however, due to strict protection, they could be attributed to reserves or monuments, while the assurance of a protection regime could have been much better than nowadays.
When Lithuania was officially christened in the end of the fourteenth century, the destruction of old sacred places was started, or they were adjusted artificially to Christian needs. Despite the historical development being unfavourable to the old network of protected areas, its individual parts (Alka Hill, and stones) reached the present times and were included in the system of protected areas formed in the second half of the twentieth century.
The sacral motives of nature protection were replaced in the feudal period by the user-oriented interest. The regulation rudiments of natural riches could be found in the Law Code of Casimir (1468) and in the First Lithuanian Statute (1529). These and other documents of feudal law give a lot of attention to the protection of forests, especially the hunted fauna, and is closely linked with ownership. Severe fines (even death sentences) were imposed for violation of the rules on the use of forests, fishing or hunting.
Wild animals and birds were regarded as the dukes’ property, while hunting was the privilege of the dukes or prominent feudal lords they favoured. In the seventeenth century, hunting by the noble elite became a form of entertainment, and the creation of suitable forest areras intended for hunting (where any other activities were essentially banned) was started. It is believed that several hunting areas were present in the territory of the present Lithuania.
Period of interwar Lithuania
This was a period when new ideas of nature protection conforming to the twentieth century reached Lithuania. They were based on a necessity to preserve natural and cultural diversity and rare objects. The enlightened people of the country (Tadas Ivanauskas, Povilas Matulionis, Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, and others) started to speak about the need to establish special protected areas – first of all, reserves and national parks – and suggested the first areas already in need of protection during the first independence decade.
In 1921, Tadas Ivanauskas indicated six areas to preserve and convert into reserves. On the initiative of Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, the discussions on creating national parks of Punia pinewood and Anykščiai boscage were started, while Povilas Matulionis encouraged attention to Labanoras wood.
In 1937, the first protected area conforming to current requirements appeared in Lithuania. It was the Žuvintas Strict Nature Reserve, intended to preserve the endangered bird species.
Early Soviet period
Lithuania that period could not have an independent policy of environment protection and was strongly affected by general tendencies manifested in the Soviet Union. In 1945, the first eight nature reserves (total area – 17,800 ha) were distinguished. Their aim was to restore the sources of large game fauna. These reserves became hunting reserves or were dissolved in 1948. A total of 13 hunting reserves were established.
In 1951, all hunting reserves were dissolved and a new network of hunting reserves was established in 1954 (total area – almost 300,000 ha). The hunting reserves were established for the period of ten years – the period needed to restore the game resources. The protected areas established in Lithuania during this period were mainly intended to preserve and restore the game resources.
Late Soviet period
The foundations for the Lithuanian system of protected areas were laid in the late Soviet period. As the threatening ecological crisis reinforced the society’s attitude towards environmental protection, the science-based systemic concept was prepared and the first documents on the planning of protected areas were drafted.
The Law on Nature Protection was adopted in 1959. It provided the main categories of protected areas and their regimes, and gave priority to protection of landscape and biodiversity. In 1960, under the resolution of the Council of Ministers, the first real nature and complex reserves aimed to preserve the values were established. In total, 89 reserves were established. At that time, the protected areas amounted to 2% of the total area of the country. These reserves covered almost all most valuable areas in Lithuania known at that time.
The network of protected areas was supplemented with new reserves quite rapidly in 1969, 1975 and 1980. The Žuvintas Strict Nature Reserve was expanded, and two new nature reserves were established: Čepkeliai (1975) and Kamanos (1979). The Kernavė Strict Culture Reserve-Museum was established in 1989; the Curonian Spit was declared a landscape reserve with special regime in 1966.
Active discussions were started at the end of 1960s on the establishment of national parks. The project to set up the Aukštaitija National Park (north-eastern Lithuania) was prepared in 1971, and this first national park was created in 1974 (30,000 ha).
Special attention was paid to establishing the network of national and regional parks; the original concept of setting up the national parks was developed (author Prof. Paulius Kavaliauskas). It was based on harmonisation of the aims of representing ethnocultural areas, and conservation and recreational interests. The opportunities were provided to establish historical national and regional parks.
The ninth decade was especially important for the development of the national network of protected areas, when the Landscape Management Group from Vilnius University, led by Prof. Paulius Kavaliauskas and assisted by the Institute of Botany, prepared a long-term scheme of protected areas in Lithuania. The substantial rearrangement of the national network of protected areas and its replacement by the purposefully developed system was planned to increase the area of the protected areas by more than twice. The government approved the suggestions of that scheme together with the Lithuanian integrated environmental protection scheme in 1986. It was the first long-term strategy of the national network of protected areas.
In 1988, not only were 79 new reserves added to the network of reserves, but also new types of reserves were added (geomorphological, hydrographic and pedagogical). The total area of all the established reserves amounted to 27,500 ha. The first Pavilniai State Nature Park – a prototype of a regional park – was established in 1984. The category of natural monuments was recognised and their network was formed; at the end of the period, there were 415 natural monuments.
The current period started in 1990 when Lithuanian independence was restored. The works supported and planned in the previous period were finished in the first three years, with the Lithuanian network of national parks completed first. Following the resolution of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania in 1991, the national parks of the Curonian Spit, Dzūkija and Žemaitija (Lower Lithuania), Trakai National Historic Park and Viešvilė Strict Nature Reserve were established. It was a unique phenomenon (even on the global scale) – the system of twenty-nine regional parks and one regional historical park (total area – over 360,000 km) was established by a single legal act (Resolution of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania of 24 September 1992). The same resolution also helped to expand the network of state reserves by add128 new national reserves to it.
The Lithuanian system of protected areas in compliance with the European standards was finished in this period. In 1993, the Law on Protected Areas was adopted, which marked the new stage of the development of the system of protected areas. In 1997, a new type of reserve was recognised – thelmological reserves, intended to protect wetlands. The Directorate of the State Cultural Reserve of Vilnius Castles was also established.
The autonomous authorities started to establish municipal reserves and to declare heritage objects.
This period of development of the system of protected areas is characterised by rapid expansion of planning works of protected areas, the formation of special institutions, the strengthening of directorates of protected areas and activation of their activities, as well as the creation of infrastructure for educational tourism.
A new wave of establishing protected areas is related to the implementation of the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives of the European Union, and the formation of the network Natura 2000.
In 2002–2018, Žuvintas Biosphere Reserve (established on the basis of a former natural strict reserve), 32 biosphere polygons, 39 reserves and 3 reconstructive sites were added to the system of protected areas. The status of Natura 2000 territory was granted to them, and other protected areas.
In 2014, over one hundred genetic reserves were established.