The History of evolution

There are six main periods in the development of Lithuania‘s protected areas network, each closely related to developments occuring within the state and society, the relationship between social and economic factors, and changes in attitudes towards the environment and culture. 

 Period  Key characteristics  Type of developed  protected area
 Ancient   Baltic  Worship of nature, its phenomena and objects. Sacral tradition of   establishing protected areas prevailed.  Traditionally protected sacred forests, trees, stones or other natural objects.
 Feudal  Consumers interest prevails. Noblemen's demand for hunting   emerged. expanses of forest were set aside exclusively for this purpose.

 Network of forests, the so called "hunting" areas with any other utilisation excluded, formed.

 Inter-war   Lithuania                     Ideas of environmental protection based on nature and culture diversity   and neccessity to preserve rare objects. A discussion was launched on the   need to set up special protected areas the first strict reserves and national   parks.  First strict nature reserves of Zuvintas and Kamsa were established.
 Early   Soviet  Organising territorial environmental protection and formation of the   network of protected areas. Hunting interests prevailed in the   development of protected areas.  8 nature reserves were established in 1945. In 1948 they were transformed into hunting reserves or  liquidated. In 1954 a network of hunting reserves was established.
 Late   Soviet  Foundations for the current network of protected areas in Lithuania were   laid. The first (1959) Law on Nature Protection provided for the key       categories and regimes of protected areas.  In 1960, the first nature and landscape reserves pursuing conservation goals appeared. The   network of nature reserves was extended and the idea of the Nature Frame were defined.   Furthermore the nature monument was legitimised.
 Present  Law on Protected Areas was adopted (1993,2001). A system of   administration of protected areas was founded and so were the   administrations of all national and regional parks.  The formation of the network of Lithuanian national parks was completed in 1991. The system of     regional parks was legitimised and the network of state reserves was essentially extended in 1992.   The first biosphere reserve was established and the formation of the NATURA 2000 network was   launched.


1. The ancient Baltic period

This is a period from Lithuania‘s deep past that appeals to Lithuanians to this day because of its romanticism and mystery, and not least for the respect that ancient Balts had for the natural environment that surrounded them and influenced every aspect of their lives. This information from the first millenium was gathered in chronicles which allow us to witness history today. The first protected areas were created in the name of sacred traditions related to the worship of natural phenomena. The oldest period in the development of a protected areas network has its roots in the protection and distinction of various sites of worship, where rituals honouring sacred trees, rocks, waters and other natural objects would occur. The destruction and sometimes even visiting of such sites was strictly forbidden and can be compared to the strict reserves existing today, yet it must be said that their special status was taken much more seriously then than it is now.

V. Vaitkevičius‘ academic study revealed the far-reaching network of ancient sites of worship that once existed in Lithuania. It consisted of :

  • 40 forests ranging in size from 5 to 1,500 ha
  •  over 500 groves
  •  over 100 trees such as oaks, lindens and pines
  •  about 100 meadows,
  • around 200 hills dedicated to gods and godesses, thunder, dawn, the sun, domed hills, etc...
  • about 20 hollows and caves, approximately 500 rocks, around 100 lakes and ponds, 10 swamps, about 150 springs, 50 rivers and streams and 9 islands. 

All of these sites of worship are directly related to the ancient religion of the Balts, its conception and evolution. Many of these objects of worship were of natural origin, and there is no material evidence that remains from the rituals that took place there. Most of these sites were in the Žemaitija region, in the north east and in central Lithuania. It is believed that certain sites of worship were not only of local, but also of regional importance.

This all changed towards the end of the 14th century with Lithuania‘s official conversion to Christianity when the ancient Baltic sites of worship were either destroyed or falsely adapted to serve Christian needs.

2. The feudal period

As feudalism replaced the disappearing Baltic nature-worship period, there was a distinct change in attitude, where the environment came to be seen as something to be exploited and consumerist interests prevailed. The first signs of this are found in Casimir‘s statute-book of 1468 and in the ninth section of the first statute of Lithuania dated to 1529 “concerning hunting grounds, forests, trees with beehives, lakes, beaver habitats, hop-gardens and hawks’ nests”. In these and other feudal legal documents most attention was given to protecting certain forests primarily for hunting and the personal ownership of these sites. Individuals found breaking these hunting and fishing rules faced serious punishment – even death.

Seeking to make greater profits from the hunting industry, the dukes centralised its management and declared ownership of wild animals and birds, while hunting became a privilege reserved for themselves or the more powerful feudal lords they considered to be deserving.  Due to the growing popularity of hunting among this grand class of elites, a practice which became a form of entertainment around the 17th century, large expanses of forest started to be set aside exclusively for this purpose, creating a type of network.

3. The inter-war period in Lithuania

 This was a period when Lithuania was influenced by a new approach, in line with the 20th century belief that natural and cultural diversity, and rare objects truly needed to be protected. T. Iva­naus­kas, P. Ma­tu­lio­nis and J. Tu­mas-Vaiž­gan­tas were among the first intellects of the first decade of independence to suggest the creation of nature reserves and national parks, each one highlighting the importance of preserving certain forests and lake regions.

In 1921 T. Ivanauskas designated six territories that he considered worthy of protection and were suited to the establishment of nature reserves – Rūdininkai and Gudai forests, the forest of Kazlų Rūda, Šepeta swamp, Marvelė valley and the Nemunas River island in Kaunas. Also at this time, J. Tumas-Vaižgantas initiated discussions in the press about the creation of national parks in the Punia and Anykščiai pinewoods, and P. Matulionis urged that more attention be paid to Labanoras forest, while the Lithuanian Naturalists‘ Society tried to justify the neccesity of declaring Žuvintas Lake a strict nature reserve. Based on the efforts of these academic intelligentsia, the first such protected areas appeared in the late 1930s – the strict nature reserves of Žuvintas (1,000 ha), Kiauneliškiai (600 ha) and Kamša (120 ha). They were however not officially recognised by the government.

The architects A. Mošinskis and J. Getneris also suggested that the nation‘s list of protected areas should also include complexes of urban cultural value.

Progress in this area was somewhat slower in the then Polish-occupied Vilnius region, however, the active involvement of naturalists from the S. Batoras University led to restrictions typical of reserves today being introduced in Kalnų Park, the Green Lakes and Rūdininkai forest in the 1930s. As well as this, there was the establishment of the first ornithological (Svirkai Lake) and botanical (Aliai swamp) reserves, while the more interesting rocks in the Vilnius district and Šeškinė ridge were granted protected object status.

4. The early Soviet period

This refers to the beginning of the period of Soviet occupation when the first cultural monument law was passed in Lithuania in 1940, right up to 1960, when the process of organising territories for ecological protection was just starting to be formed – a relatively painful step in the creation of a protected areas network. In those days Lithuania had no right to introduce its own independent environmental protection policies as it was heavily influenced by general trends apparent in the whole of the Soviet Union.

One of the more important steps towards ecological territories was made on February 5, 1946, when the then government (the Council of the People‘s Commisariat) decided to create the Žuvintas strict reserve, covering almost 3,200 ha, which came to be under the jurisdiction of Lithuania‘s Academy of Science. This is how Žuvintas became the first official strict nature reserve where scientific ecological protection measures could be applied.

  • 1945 we saw the establishment of the first eight nature reserves (total area of 17,800 ha):  the Punia forest nature, Meteliai birds, Kiauneliškiai Capercaille, Vidzgiria Pine, Ratnyčia boar and elk, Žagarė forest deer and boar, Padauguva boar and the Žalioji forest elk reserves. The titles of these reserves reflect the purpose behind their establishment – to regenerate large fauna for hunting.
  •  1948, when forming the hunting reserves network (basically bringing back the hunting forests present in feudal times) they were reorganised and became hunting reserves or were abolished altogether. 13 hunting reserves were established, in addition to those already mentioned (Punia forest, Vidzgiria, Žagarė, Žalioji, Labanoras (Kiauneliškiai), Padauguva and Meteliai) there was also the appearance of the following significant protected areas: the Curonian Spit, Gudai forest (Čepkeliai), Užvinčiai (Ažvinčiai), Dubrava and Šešuoliai forests (a total area of 94,500 ha).
  • 1954 A wide hunting reserve network was created. It consisted of 149 reserves and covered a total area of almost 300,000 ha. Each of these hunting reserves were established temporarily (for a 10 year period), meaning, as many were established as was needed to regenerate hunting resources.
  • 1958 was an important year in the development of cultural heritage protection as this was when the Nature Conservation Committee made a record of all the historical parks (the residences and manors of the nobility) after which 194 (almost 2,300 ha) of the most valuable parks were granted state protection. As mentioned earlier though, the main reason behind the establishment of Lithuania‘s protected areas in the early Soviet period was to preserve and regenerate resources for hunting.

5. The late Soviet period

 This period, and in particular the second half, was a veritable golden-age in the creation of protected areas, as this was when the foundation for Lithuania’s current protected areas system was made, and when the main boundaries of protected areas were defined. Due to the growing threat of an ecological crisis and the public’s own growing awareness of environmental issues, the process of creating a system of protected areas started to be scientifically regulated resulting in the preparation of a systematised concept and the first planning documents.

  • 1959 with the passing of the first Nature Protection Law which defined the main protected area categories and how they would be protected - priority was given to the protection of landscape and biological diversity. Based on this law, Council of Ministers Resolution No. 157 of September 27, 1960 allowed the establishment of the first real nature and complex reserves dedicated to the conservation of natural and cultural values. Initially 89 such protected areas were announced (7 geological, 15 botanical, 6 ornithological, 11 botanical-zoological, 25 landscape and 25 historical reserves) covering 130,000 ha or 2 per cent of the total area of Lithuania, and included almost all of the known most valuable territories – from Anyksčiai to the Curonian Spit. Two ecologists in particular, K. Balevičius and L. Masiliūnas.
  • 1969, 1975 and 1980 when 8 geological, 10 botanical, 32 botanical cranberry plots, 2 ornithological, 13 ichthyological, 3 zoological (herpetological), 1 botanical-zoological, 13 landscape, 1 hydrogeological and 3 hydrological reserves were established. Žuvintas strict reserve grew to over 5,000 ha and two new strict nature reserves were created – Čepkeliai (in 1975, 8,500 ha) and Kamanos (in 1979, 3,700 ha).At the same time a system designed to protect immovable cultural heritage objects was also being formulated.
  • 1966, the Curonian Spit was declared a landscape reserve of special exception, which in effect, gave it national park status, though officially it could not be validated as such, while the forests on the Curonian Spit were declared a state forest park in 1976. The creation of national parks came to be widely discussed in the media in the late 1960s (by Č. Kudaba, V. Gudelis, K. Eringis and others). The Institute of Construction and Architecture was delegated to prepare the Aukštaitija national park project however once this was done in 1971, fears arose as much for the title itself, ‘national’ park, as for the planners’ proposed location which was meant to protect the Lakaja, Aiseta and Ginučiai lakes districts and the Labanoras and Ažvinčiai forests.
  • 1974 Lithuania's first national park was established, covering an area of 30,000 ha (only a third of the territory that was initially suggested), and was given the title Lithuanian SSR National Park. Only in 1989 did it come to be known as Aukštaitija National Park – towards the end of the Soviet period.
  •  1980s were especially important in the development of a protected areas network as this was when the Environmental Protection Committee requested the Land Management Department of Vilnius University, led by P. Kavaliauskas, to prepare a perspective scheme for Lithuania‘s Special Protected Areas. In addition to other changes, this scheme proposed the doubling of the total area of protected areas. The suggestions made were included in Lithuania‘s integrated environmental protection scheme and were validated by the government in 1986. This was the first step towards the country‘s protected areas long-term development strategy, whose final implementation continued up until the re-instatement of Lithuania‘s independence.

This period between 1960 and 1985 saw the validation of protected natural landscape object and natural monument categories and the creation of a network uniting them. Towards the end of the Soviet period 415 nature monuments were announced: geological (rocks, exposures, karst sinkholes and depressions); hydrogeological (springs) and botanical (trees). 354 of these were accepted as being of republic importance.The last decade of the Soviet period (1984-1989) was when P.Kavaliauskas set the theoretical and project foundation for the creation of a natural corridor. Natural corridors are universally accepted as a way of protecting natural landscapes and creating an ecologically stable land management structure.

Another important feature of the development of a protected areas network was the authorisation of an ecological protection priority network that had the important function of maintaining an ecological balance. This network consisted of strict reserve and water body, resort, road side and engineering object protection zones that covered over a quarter of the total area of Lithuania. The previous restorative protection priority protected areas (ie. hunting reserves) were replaced with water bird reserves and mating areas of the protected Capercaille (a total area of 8,300 ha) as well as a forestry nursery network.

6. The current period

This started in 1990 with the re-instatement of Lithuania‘s independence and the first three years were essentially devoted to finishing that which had been reasoned and planned in the previous period. First of all was the completion of the Lithuanian national parks network where according to the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania Resolution No. 1-1244 passed on April, 23, 1991  the Curonian Spit, Dzūkija, Žemaitija and Trakai Historical National Parks as well as the Veišvilė Strict Nature Reserve were established. The legitimisation of one single legal act (Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania Resolution No. 1-2913 passed on September 24, 1992) resulted in a unique (even on a global scale) phenomenon – a regional park system incorporating 29 regional parks and 1 historical regional park, with a common area of over 360,000 ha. This resolution also allowed the enlargement of the state reserves network with the addition of 128 new state reserves: 29 landscape, 36 geomorphological, 21 hydrographical, 22 botanical, 14 botanical-zoological, 3 ornithological, 2 entomological and 1 cartographical, the total area of which now reached over 76,500 ha.

This period saw the completion of Lithuania‘s protected area network, the result being a system that met European standards.

A very important aspect of this period was the preparation and legitimisation of the Law on Protected Areas in 1993, which heralded a new stage in the development of a protected areas system. This was a law that integrated the protection of territories of natural and cultural value and proposed the main benchmarks for its organisation. In 1994 it was supplemented by the Law on the Protection of Immovable Cultural Property. All of this was in preparation for the commencement of land reforms and rapid moves towards the private ownership of protected areas. At this point protected areas had been incorporated into a new legal system, their network was almost completely formed (occupying about 11% of the total area of the country), and plans were underway for new protected areas. These measures all helped soften the impact of the dominant private and group interests on Lithuania‘s most valuable territories.

According to the Republic of Lithuania Resolution No.1486 of December 29, 1997, Lithuanian reserves were re-registered which led to the formation of a separate telmological reserves group dedicated to the protection of wetlands, as well as changing the status of some other reserve types. Having overcome some difficulties the Vilnius Castles State Cultural Reserve was finally established in 1997, and the state reserves network grew to include 11 new reserves that had once been part of the Soviet era system (6 landscape, 3 telmological, 1 geomorphological and 1 ornithological). The boundaries of certain protected areas were also expanded (Aukštaitija, Dzūkija and Žemaitija National Parks, and the Nemunas River Delta Loops Regional Park). Based on the Law on Protected Areas, some municipalities, such as Kėdainiai, Ukmergė, Šilutė and Vilnius, started creating municipal reserves and distinguishing certain heritage objects.

This stage in the development of a protected areas network is characterised by the rapid increase in protected areas planning, the creation of special institutions designed to facilitate these works (The State Protected Areas Service under the Ministry of the Environment and the Department of Protected Areas in the Ministry of Culture), the increased activity of state park and reserve directorates, the creation of tourism infrastructure (predominantly cycle paths), the intensification of the activities of the Immovable Cultural Heritage Register, as well as a new wave in the establishment of protected areas as a response to the implementation of EU Bird and Habitat Directives and the creation of the Natura 2000 Network.

In 2002-2005 the country‘s protected areas network grew to include the Žuvintas Biosphere Reserve, 26 biosphere grounds, the Baltic Sea Talasological Reserve, 5 ornithological and 2 botanical-zoological reserves and 3 regeneration sites. These and the other protected areas have all been granted Natura 2000 status.

Last updated: 05-11-2019