Dr. Juraj Svajda of Slovakia credits his parents for his love of nature: “While growing up I spent summers and weekends with my parents in a beautiful part of our country -- in the White Carpathian Mountains along the Czech border -- in an old house where my grandparents had lived. We had gardens and orchards, which taught me the connection between people and nature. I also remember us going regularly to the mountains to hike, and I especially enjoyed the High and Western Tatras where I eventually settled down personally and professionally.”
Today, Dr. Svajda is working side-by-side with National Park Service staff at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to assess the impacts of visitors on protected areas. His one-year research fellowship is made possible by the Slovak-American Foundation, the Council on International Educational Exchange, and the U.S. Department of State.
Dr. Svajda intends to take what he has learned back to Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica, where he works as an assistant professor, with the hope of applying it one day to the national parks in Slovakia. "I strongly believe that nature conservation in Slovakia needs broader engagement of the people -- a bottom-up approach -- rather than the top-down approach we inherited from the Communists when our protected areas were created. This means involvement of locals, the scientists, NGOs, media, land owners and users, businesses, politicians, philanthropists, artists and volunteers as we can see here in the U.S. It is a very broad approach and definitely better and more efficient in terms of sustainability and long-term results."
Prior to his time at Matej Bel University, Dr. Svajda served as the Chief Ranger at Tatra National Park. He was able to come to the United States as a part of a Sister Park agreement between Slovakia’s Tatra National Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park. Although he no longer works directly on park management in Slovakia, he continues to be passionate about good stewardship and getting young people interested in nature conservation. He has been “deeply impressed” by how friendly and supportive visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park have been and how well they understand the importance of research and conservation.
"Frankly speaking, I hated history when I was in school but I’ve become a great fan while reading the history of U.S. national parks to understand how your system evolved. You were lucky to have enlightened people among your politicians but also wealthy philanthropists and other advocates a century ago who had the wisdom and vision to protect these places for future generations. As the book title says, your national parks are the best idea in the world."
When asked to give an example of something he has learned during his fellowship, he replied, “Our protected areas in Slovakia are heavily visited, but we do not have the appropriate methodologies to evaluate the impacts of these visitors on the park. At Rocky Mountain, two research techniques are used to understand how many visitors the park can accommodate as well as how much degradation should be considered acceptable. Applying these techniques to Slovakia’s conditions can help to protect the natural resources and maintain the quality of visitor experiences.”
When asked what makes the Tatra Mountains so special for Slovaks, he described them as "the symbol of our country -- the highest mountains and most visited destination in our country." He explained that they contain a huge concentration of biodiversity in a very small area, which means they are highly sensitive to human impacts. He worries that many people do not understand why the Tatras are so important and should be preserved for future generations, rather than developed with activities that can be placed elsewhere and which damage Slovakia’s natural and cultural heritage.
"In your country, I have a strong feeling that people love the parks and would support them even if the park administrators no longer existed. Your parks are a universal symbol of freedom and democracy."
About the Author: Patrick Hudak serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.