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When the Eastern Bloc fortified its border with the West across miles of farmland and city streets in the 1960s and ’70s, it left a ribbon of undisturbed vegetation between the demarcation line and the fences, a no-man’s land flanked by guard towers and watchful soldiers.

The land was tranquil in an otherwise menacing environment, recalled John Walker, a former U.S. tanker, who patrolled the former Czechoslovak border with the Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and occasionally entered the woods.

“We’d see deer in there, every kind of critter,” he said.

Time and the unification of Germany and of Europe eliminated the fences, but the untouched land has remained.

In recent years, naturalists have worked with local landowners to preserve the habitat as an ecological corridor running the length of the former border. Germany, where the effort began, has seen the most progress. Its Grünes Band, or Green Belt, stands as an ambitious memorial to the once-divided land, as well a conservation effort to benefit hundreds of plant and animal species.

“It was a death zone for people, but it really was a lifeline for animals and plants,” said Liana Geidezis, who oversees the project for German conservation nonprofit BUND.

While Berlin would become the most powerful symbol of the East-West divide that characterized the Cold War, the border ran far deeper into Germany’s interior, cleaving the country along the borders of six West German states and running from the Baltic Sea 866 miles south to the Bavarian border with the Czech Republic.

As in Berlin, the inner border was fortified over time, particularly in the East. The painted border markers were soon backed by fences, watch towers, anti-tank ditches and buried landmines. The fortifications stretched across farm fields and wood stands, and occasionally bisected roads and even cities.

American soldiers watched the buildup from the West German side. Frank Graham, a retired lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Armored Cavlary Regiment, recalled his first tour in 1966, when soldiers from both sides passed the same concrete markers designating the official line.

“At that time, the border was not heavily fenced, the anti-tank ditch hadn’t been dug on the other side, and frequently, one of my guys would leave a pack of cigarettes on one of the posts, or a unit patch,” he said.

Much had changed by his next deployment, in 1973. The fence was taller and made of a tighter mesh. Watchtowers loomed, and concrete anti-tank ditches ran the length of some sections.

“We saw a lot more modern equipment,” Graham said.

The vegetation remained, however, attracting the attention of naturalists on both sides. One was Stefan Beyer, a German who grew up on the western side of the border, where the Green Belt was visible but unapproachable. Beyer first recognized the wealth of the region after participating in a bird survey.

“We found that many birds were living in the border,” he said. “These birds, like the whinchat (a small songbird), 90 percent live in the border or near the border, and 10 percent in the remaining (district).”

In December 1989, weeks after the Berlin wall opened, BUND organized a gathering of more than 400 conservationists from both sides of the wall. They named the ribbon of land — which varies in width between 50 and 200 yards — the Green Belt, and resolved to protect it.

Political leaders were less eager to support the concept, Geidezis said, seeing in the border a reminder of a painful period.

“They had plans to build roads along the Green Belt,” she said. “So it was very, very difficult in the first five to six years.”

Conservationists pursued the effort, and with more press coverage and a continued grass-roots push, they eventually won federal support, bringing critical financing for land purchases. Public awareness of the Green Belt continued to grow, meanwhile. The 20th anniversary of the border’s dissolution in 2009, resulted in articles, TV shows and a documentary on the project.

Nearly three-quarters of Green Belt land now fall under some form of natural protection, whether by German law or EU designation, according to Geidezis. Some 70 percent of the land is controlled by state governments or non-profit organizations for the purpose of preservation, with the remainder in private hands. Conservation groups continue to add parcel purchases.

Beyer, the naturalist, now works for one of those groups, the Stiftung Naturschutz Thüringen, where he oversees a 122 square-mile stretch of former border from an office in Coburg. Nearly 25 years after first stepping into the Green Belt, Beyer can summon its ecological wealth from his desktop computer. He pulls up maps that detail habitats, provide species populations and compare photos from before and after the border fortifications were removed.

Species that have lost breeding grounds elsewhere, such as the snipe and the woodlark have sustained populations in the border area, he explained.

“For about 41 years, nobody used the land in the Green Band, archeologically or (agriculturally),” Beyer said. “Now we have soil that was not damaged by fertilizer or pesticide, so many plant and animal species can live there.”

His organization is still trying to purchase parcels of the Green Belt from private owners, as well as lands around it. It also works with farmers near the border, encouraging the use of environmentally sensitive techniques.

The Green Belt is intended as a backbone of protected lands across the country, Beyer and Geidezis say, an unbroken corridor between smaller nature parks and larger protected areas, including the Thuringian Forest and the Harz, a mountain range to the north.

It’s also the model for a Europe-wide belt along the former Iron Curtain. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev threw his weight behind the project in 2002, and a May meeting in Berlin will celebrate its 10th anniversary while trying to advance agreement among the 24 countries involved, said Geidezis.

“All along the former Iron Curtain there are really unique habitats,” said Geidezis, “because it was a really remote area.”

Today, little evidence of the German border remains along its former path, at least in the tri-border area where the former East-West line met with the former Czechoslovakia. Museums, cultural signs and the odd stretch of fencing or marker remain, but nature and decay have consumed other remnants.

Graham made a visit several years ago, and found himself amazed by the difference, he said.

“Except for the big Army presence in Bamberg, which is still there, it’s hard to imagine U.S. troops were ever there,” he said.

Naturalists say it’s for the best, and border veterans like Walker agree.

“I’m not a naturalist, I’m not a biologist or a zoologist,” he said. “But I’d imagine after 40 years uninterrupted and left alone, it’s a pretty special biotope. And I’d agree with them — don’t touch it.” Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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