CORVALLIS, Ore. - In a country still reeling from a fierce civil war, where many buildings are pock-marked by bullet holes and other battle scars, building an economy based on eco-tourism is a concept that seems rather optimistic.
But the natural beauty of Croatia, combined with a growing national movement of conservation biology, suggests the idea may not be so far-fetched. And the idea of using natural resources as a way to gain an economic toehold in the new European Union may be gaining popularity in other small nations.
Two Oregon State University fisheries and wildlife biologists returned recently from Rovinj, Croatia, where they were invited to present an intense short course in conservation biology by the Croatian Biological Society. And though the focus of their presentations wasn't necessarily on the economic potential of nature, the interest was definitely there, they say.
"Croatia is now where Costa Rica was in the 1970s," said Scott Heppell, a fisheries ecologist and physiologist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Costa Rica made a decision to have an economy that is largely centered around natural resource-based tourism. That doesn't just happen. You have to plan for it."
Selina Heppell, a wildlife population biologist who is married to Scott, pointed out that Croatia's conservation efforts to date have largely revolved around setting aside parks and recording natural history. What the country hasn't done, she added, was use science to determine best management practices.
"Because of the war and the emerging European Union, there has been pressure to catch up economically," Selina Heppell said. "Scientists in nature conservation have not been very effective voices in that debate. For most people, the knowledge that 200 different species of sponges live along a section of the coastline isn't a compelling reason to not pour sewage into the ocean."
That may be changing. In their course, the Heppells worked with 22 graduate students and post-docs from six different countries - Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. They represent a growing movement in European academic circles to better incorporate science into natural resource management and at least explore nature-based tourism as an economic alternative.
Comparisons to the United States - even in its early days of conservation biology popularized by Aldo Leopold, John Muir and others - are difficult to make, the Heppells say.
"The U.S. has always had this huge land mass with tremendous natural resources," said Selina Heppell. "The Croatians, and most other small European countries, don't have that luxury. It isn't just a matter of size, but also of age. Humans have had an impact on the landscape in Europe - in an industrial sense - for thousands of years longer than we have.
"They're not going to be able to set aside Yellowstone-sized tracts of land."
Over a six-day period, the OSU ecologists presented 20 different lectures on a variety of topics, including the use of science in conservation biology, biodiversity, wildlife population trends, extinction risks, exotic species, climate change, marine resources and others. They emphasized the science of conservation biology - evidence-based, hypothesis-driven research to understand the responses of nature to human perturbations.
Their international class of students quickly adapted to the Heppells' American style of teaching - which they describe as interactive and conversational, as opposed to lecture-oriented. Missing from the conversation, they point out, were government officials who could help take conservation biology concepts to the realm of policy.
"We talked with lots of faculty and a few administrators, which is the appropriate level, because the push for conservation biology will start at the university level first," Selina Heppell said. "The University of Zagreb is going through major curriculum changes to be accepted into the European Union, and faculty see this as a chance to incorporate the science of conservation biology into the university."
The Heppells also had a chance to tour parts of the country, especially the scenic coastline, which is dotted with numerous offshore islands in the Adriatic Sea. Croatia is home to small numbers of European brown bears, as well as wolves, fur-bearing mammals called kuna that are in the fisher family, and numerous birds, including the world's only coastal population of griffon vultures. The coastal area includes endangered sea turtles and dolphins.
Situated between the land masses of Europe and the Middle East, Croatia boasts a remarkable level of biodiversity for a country its size, the Heppells point out. There is strong potential for eco-tourism in the natural areas of the mountains and coast, they add, but the protection and management of these lands will require careful planning.
"The country is starting over in many ways," said Scott Heppell. "They're transforming from a Soviet industrial model to some new kind of economic system, and at the same time, recovering from a civil war. But Croatia is starting to rebuild and rethink itself. The Canadian and German governments are helping to rebuild houses in abandoned communities so people will have something to come back to.
"The Croatians are thinking in news ways about economics and about their natural resources," he added. "The two may go hand-in-hand." The Heppells have been invited to return to Croatia in May and teach a new set of courses.