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Travel

Mountains of Greece at Risk of Cultural, Environmental, and Aesthetic Losses

April 21, 2024
By Maria Christodoulou and Jason König

The mountains of Greece cover 80% of the country’s landmass. They are currently more at risk than at any time in their history. The aesthetic beauty of these landscapes, their phenomenal history and culture, and above all, their high environmental diversity are increasingly threatened due to several main threats.

Wildfires are the most high-profile danger – particularly the lack of preparedness for their prevention and management, for which the Greek government has been criticized. Most recently, the destructive building processes associated with the installation of wind turbines has caused uproar within many communities. Other threats, which have been ongoing, include the problems of illegal construction and overgrazing of animals. Each of these greatly disturb sensitive ecosystems in one of Europe’s most biodiverse countries. And yet, this biodiversity is not protected enough by the government or promoted for sustainable ecotourism. These threats also greatly affect the identity and safety of mountain villages, undermine established environmental protections, and bring new vulnerability to archaeological sites of historical and cultural importance.

A view of a scorched mountain side three months after the August 2023 wildfire on Mount Parnitha. Photo: Maria Christodoulou

For the past several decades, catastrophic wildfires ravaging forests on islands and the mainland have demonstrated the immediate need for improved wildfire prevention. Recovery from wildfires requires decades and immense human and financial resources. In 2007, Taygetos mountain, the majestic mountain of ancient Sparta, experienced a devastating fire caused by arson from which the Greek fir stands on the central west slopes have yet to fully recover. Mount Penteli, the source of marble that constructed the Parthenon and more recently, St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in New York City, has suffered from multiple devastating fires caused by arson, resulting in decimation of much of the dense pine forests. Before the multiple devastating fires, the mountain ecosystem was dominated by Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) with a shrub story of maquis species. Because full recovery of pine forests requires more than 30 years, the areas of regeneration now consist of an entirely different ecosystem, with kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), green olive tree (Phillyrea latifolia), tree heather (Erica arborea), Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne), oleander (Nerium oleander), and European smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria).

A beach on Kythera island. Photo: Maria Christodoulou

Mount Hymettus, the closest mountain to Athens, suffers from deforestation, landfills, devastating fires, and illegal construction, despite being in the Natura 2000 Network. The environmental groups, Philodassiki Society and the Association for the Protection & Development of Hymettos (S.P.A.Y.), strive to protect it with constant reforestation, maintenance, and cleaning efforts with public participation.

Mount Parnitha, considered the “lung” of Athens and also part of the Natura 2000 Network, suffered from destructive fires in 2007 that destroyed 80% of the rare Greek fir and Aleppo pine forest. The mountain’s recovery, greatly supported by human reforestation efforts of thousands of seedling plantings of Greek fir (Abies cephalonica), black pine (Pinus nigra), downy oak (Quercus pubescens), and plane (Platanus orientalis), was curtailed in 2023 with one of the largest wildfires recorded in the E.U. Throughout Greece, Abies cephalonica represents one of the most important forest species. The tree is not adapted to fires as it does not have a thick bark nor forms serotinous cones with delayed seed dispersal, which, like many Mediterranean pines, provides necessary seed germination for post-fire recovery.

Dr. Jason König hiking a mountain in Scotland. Photo: Jason König

The environmental organization We4All focuses on the protection and restoration of nature after wildfire disasters. According to CEO and co-founder John Iliopoulos, “from our standpoint, the most major threats of our mountains are wildfires, climate change that is bringing hotter and longer summers, hotter and shorter winters, as well as the carelessness and expansiveness of certain land owners who are expanding their lands into the forests more and more.”

In addition to the destruction caused by wildfires, wind turbines are changing the mountain landscape with construction of new roads and disruption to wildlife. A spree of wind turbine installations on mountain ridges across the country has proven controversial and unwelcome among many local populations. Extensive prevention efforts have been ongoing or are underway on many mountains to prevent wind turbine installations that threaten the health of biodiverse ecosystems and the people who live in and visit these remarkable areas. In Crete, for example, the UNESCO Psiloritis Geopark recently rejected the proposed plans for a high voltage transmission line that would stretch a total length of 101.3 km through and within the boundaries of the municipalities of Chania, Apokoronas, Rethymno, Amari, Mylopotamos, and Malevizi.

On the island of Kythera, an independent group of concerned citizens created a website called Kythira Wind Turbines that describes the history of the proposed wind turbine development throughout the island and the significant reasons to oppose them. Other organizations that protest against the damaging construction of wind turbines include the Athenian Mountaineering Association; CALLISTO, an environmental organization for wildlife and nature; and the Instagram accounts @savegreekmountains and @small_islands_matter which are citizen-led initiatives for the protection of Greek mountains.

Some of these threats are shared with other mountain landscapes around the world. The blighting of mountain landscapes through industrial development is a widespread phenomenon, including, for example, in the Appalachian region of the United States. As a result, depopulation and cultural decline in mountain communities are serious challenges being faced there, as well as in many places in the world. And while mountain regions elsewhere are also at great risk from wildfires, Greece, in particular, is exposed to that danger to an unusual degree because of its warming climate.

Site of an ancient summit altar on Mount Arachnaion. Photo: Jason König

Amidst all these ongoing threats, one of Greece’s distinctive challenges is the preservation of its significant mountain history. The rich archaeological heritage of the mountains of Greece is still largely ignored by comparison with more monumental sites down at sea level. Many mountain summits in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean have the remains of sacrificial altars on their summits. Even today, remains of pottery and bone fragments from sacrifices and the feasting that accompanied them thousands of years ago can be found on mountaintops throughout the country. Yet, many of these extraordinary sites are neglected. For decades they have been covered and in some cases damaged by military installations on mountain summits. Many others are at risk from wind turbine development.

At the ancient Mount Arachnaion, located northeast of Nafplio, the remains of the summit altar are still in place, but all around them the summit ridge is lined by wind turbines. The turbines are visible from miles around from the plain below, along with access routes that have been carved out of the mountainside to allow for building and maintenance of the wind farm. It feels like a very precarious place.

Some mountain regions of Greece have recently been granted protection from road-building and other kinds of development. But those new regulations cover only a small proportion of environmentally and historically important sites, and there is a risk that they will simply produce a sense of complacency. There are huge areas still urgently in need of protection.

There are some positive signs. Many community groups throughout Greece and the eastern Mediterranean are working to preserve local heritage and to encourage sustainable tourism. The environmental organization We4All has planted more than 2.5 million trees in Greece and abroad and has educated over 200,000 children on sustainable forest management, in part with support from fundraising efforts of The Hellenic Initiative with their Plant A Tree in Greece program.

Mount Kithairon summit ridge. Photo: Jason König

The Greek website Electronic Environmental Register provides an opportunity for the public to learn about proposed development projects throughout Greece and submit comments and complaints against projects that threaten the beautiful landscape of Greece that has inspired generations.

These are only the first steps towards a more sustainable future. But these precious landscapes still urgently need new funds and creative initiatives if they are going to be preserved intact for the future.

Maria Christodoulou is a clinical herbalist exploring the wisdom of ancient Greek herbal medicine. She offers plant walks and herbal tours throughout Greece and is the author of ‘The Greek Herbalist’s Guide to the National Garden’ and ‘The Greek Herbalist’s Guide to the Mountain.’ To learn more, visit www.thegreekherbalist.com.

Jason König is Professor of Classics at the University of St, Andrews, UK. He has published widely on ancient Greek and Roman culture. His most recent book, ‘The Folds of Olympus: Mountains in Ancient Greek and Roman Culture,’ was shortlisted for the London Hellenic Prize in 2022.

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