Cultural Landscape in Change
Naturally, the Rhön would be covered by beech forests, mixed beech forests, numerous creeks and bogs. Since more than one thousand years, men used these beech forests for the production of charcoal to melt iron and glass. Therefore, since many centuries the Rhön is only slightly covered by forests. Large open grasslands are typical for the elevated parts of the Rhön. Thus, the region is also called "Land of open expanses".
The Rhön is no homogenous cultural region. Frankonians, Thuringians and Saxonians cultivated the Rhön starting from the lower valleys. There are almost no settlements in the central Upper Rhön. Only in the Thuringian part, few villages can be found in more elevated regions. Many important German language boundaries cross the Rhön. Furthermore, authority borders were always in question, especially between the dioceses Fulda and Würzburg. After the second world war, Bavaria and Hesse were assigned to the American zone of occupation while Thuringia became part of the Soviet zone. Until 1989, the "iron curtain" separated the Rhön into east and west. As a consequence of this political situation, different situations in each part can be found up to now. The Bavaria part is characterised by small-scale agriculture as a result of the Franconian field splitting (Fränkische Realteilung), whereas in Thuringia large-scale land use exists as a consequence of former agricultural cooperatives for collective production (LPGs). The forty year separation of Germany split families and prevented infrastructure improvements which led to a complete different situation in east and west today.
These peripheral border areas of all three Länder could not follow the economic development of urban areas. Agriculture and forestry with their traditional processing activities kept an above-average importance. On the other hand, sensible plant and animal communities were protected in vast areas and could partly recolonise habitats because man was excluded in large areas as a consequence of the east-west border, because no traffic routes fragmented the landscape or because of the extensive land use in unfavourable agricultural areas.
The main goal of regional planning in the Rhön is to develop the region for nature conservation, recreation and industrial activities in order to maintain a landscape which is very valuable from the nature conservation point of view. In addition, in all three Länder living conditions need to be improved and the identification of people with the biosphere reserve should increase. In order to achieve these goals all three Länder must find their own way because of varying situations.
In many fields, it is as special strength to follow different ways to achieve one goal. For instance, large-scale agriculture in Thuringia could and should not be converted into small-scale farming. In Bavaria, small fields of the Upper Rhön which are the result of Franconian field splitting (fränkische Realteilung) are purchased by public authorities and used by local farmers as mountainous mowing meadows under management agreements (Vertragsnaturschutz). In Hesse however, these areas are used for grazing.
Different plant and animal communities benefit from these three different forms of land use, which are all very valuable if they are sustainably carried out. This difference between the three Länder fosters the diversity of the whole Rhön region.
Because of the differing situations in the three Länder, a framework management plan was elaborated between 1991 and 1994. During its entire developing phase, the plan was discussed intensively with communities, authorities and associations of the Rhön. This helped to increase the local acceptance of the concept. As a consequence of the framework management plan, concepts for tourism, cycle tracks, coordinated land use planning and winter sports were developed in a similar way.
New approaches to achieve the goals
In addition, detailed concepts for some areas were developed with the participation of all stakeholders. For instance, farmers and nature conservationists developed an alternative concept for the protection of grasslands in the Upper Hesse Rhön. In institutions such as round tables, open forums and project groups, conceptual work and planning is done while improving the acceptance of the activities at the same time. These forums and workshops do not only continuously work on technical questions. They also create an identification of people with the Rhön which could not developed due to history. Clear goals and strategies which are accepted by people lead to the success of the Rhön as an important region on the European level.
Holistic and ecological funding concept
Apart from the recognition of the Rhön as biosphere reserve by UNESCO, the European Union included the Rhön in their LEADER programmes. This is a joint initiative to foster economic development in rural areas. The focus of this programme is on the cooperation among stakeholders, the development of guidelines and goals and the implementation of projects which are innovative, generate jobs and comply with the overall goals. Because of the different situations in the three Länder, each Land has its own LEADER project. So far, also other transboundary projects such as two LEADER projects were implemented. The transboundary cooperation is increasingly important although differing situations constrict joint initiatives in some areas. Favourable future perspectives in spite of a difficult situation today The main goal of the whole project is to assure the future of the Rhön. This implies that the Rhön should be maintained as an important area on the European level and that, at the same time, it should develop as a vital economic region. Doing so, biodiversity need to be maintained and improved where necessary. As the project is carried out, the three pillars of sustainability should be fostered in a balanced way:
- evironmental goals
Sound nature and an extraordinary landscape are the most important capital also for the achievement of economic goals. The whole strategy is to use the given situation such as unfavourable soil quality, unfavourable climate conditions, remoteness or low industrial development as advantages of location ("unfragmented", "sound nature", "species diversity", "clean"…) which are the characteristics of the region. Various strategies are used to achieve the goals as good as possible. For instance, products and services need to comply with useful quality standards. Only techniques should be supported which save resources, comply with the latest scientific insights and techniques or which represent and continue old traditions of the Rhön. Sustainability in agriculture and forestry is a matter of course when businesses try to cooperate with the biosphere reserve as a partner.
Sustainability in the sense of the Agenda 21
In the Rhön, sustainability should be strived for which is ecologically and socially compatible. Thus, the use of natural goods and services should be balanced and holistic, it should comply with the overall goal of the biosphere reserve and should support all classes of population. The identification of people with their region needs to increase while living conditions continuously improve. All in all, the motto of the region is: "A future to nature, new chances to man".