The World’s First River National Park Is Here—And the U.S. Should Steal the Idea

Amid widespread drought, a river in Albania is inspiring new currents.

Rivers in the US and around the world are on life support—but a new national park is doing something about it. On March 15, 2023, Albania turned its Vjosa River into a national park, making it the first full-blown wild river park in the world—a historic boon for conservationists that could set a new precedent for how waterways are protected elsewhere. In the US, rivers earn various levels of protection from the National Park Service (the country’s newest national park, in fact, is New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia), but the nature of a free-flowing river has thus far made it difficult to preserve them more fully.

Unlike other bodies of water, like Crater Lake or Florida’s swampy Everglades, the fact that rivers flow through different regions, states, and even countries thwarts efforts to fully conserve them once they flow out of protected areas. And this is precisely what makes Vjosa Wild River National Park, protected in its 168-mile entirety from the Pindus mountains to the Adriatic Sea, such a game-changer. It’s quickly become a beacon of hope for Europe and the rest of the world when considering how we can better conserve these vital resources in the face of widespread drought and rampant climate change.


Meet the rare wild river

In Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a river that isn’t dammed up or lined with hydropower plants. The mighty Vjosa, which meanders from Greece through southern Albania en route to the Adriatic, is one of the continent’s last remaining rivers that is truly wild—and thanks to its groundbreaking national park designation, it will remain as such.

A wild river is one that is truly unmarred by human interference, which protects its biodiversity and native species, supports natural environmental processes, and promotes eco-tourism in order to foster local communities that live along its banks. All of these incentives are crucial now more than ever, as freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened bodies of water in the world.

The Vjosa River weaves through canyons, lush forests, plains, and fertile valleys, sustaining more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna, as well as centuries-old cultures who’ve relied on it as an important water source. As is typically the case with rivers, though, developers were thirsty to cash in on its resources. In addition to would-be dams, nearly 50 hydropower plants were once planned along its shores.

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Today, no such plants or dams will ever take shape along the Vjosa and its 31,500 acres worth of waterways, islands, canyons, valleys, and beachfront. The win is thanks to years of collaborative efforts from environmental organizations—like Patagonia and Save the Blue Heart of Europe—along with the Albanian government. At a ceremony presided by Prime Minister Edi Rama, he called the river’s designation a historic win for both conservation and the economy. In addition to preserving its scenic beauty and vitality, visitors to this free-flowing national park are able to raft, paddle, hike along its shores, and visit historic communities like Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its castles and stone architecture.

No matter how jarringly pivotal freshwater protection has become, no government has successfully enshrined an entire river like this before, highlighting the importance of these wide-reaching protections and mapping out a blueprint for how other countries can follow suit.

US drought
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What could this mean for the US?

River preservation is certainly not a problem confined to Europe. What the Vjosa River is to Albania, the Colorado River is to Americans. But in the US, our rivers are not so wild, and historic droughts have magnified the reality of climate change. Based on current trends trickling down in our once-mighty waterway, it might be time for our national parks to borrow a page from the Balkans.

The Colorado River, which gets most of its water from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and supplies drinking water for one in eight Americans, has withered dramatically and alarmingly in recent years. A far cry from its heyday, once powerful enough to chisel one of the world’s mightiest canyons, the river is in the midst of its worst drought in more than a millennium. Ever since an ongoing drought settled over the western US two decades ago—resulting in what is now referred to as a terrifying-sounding “megadrought”—the Colorado is as dry as it’s ever been, posing huge problems for people and animals who rely on it to survive.

While the Colorado River weaves in and out of protected lands, like Grand Canyon National Park, those brief reprieves are pittance compared to what it would take to truly protect and support this iconic waterway—and at 1,450 miles in length, there’s a lot to protect. Although the Albanian government was resistant for years to protect the Vjosa, insistent on building dams for hydropower, it eventually saw the tourism and economic benefits of a national park. By preserving the river from damaging extraction and keeping it open for recreational use—including hiking, camping, climbing, and swimming—it’s inviting a whole new wave of potential visitors from across the globe to come and spend money in a region that’s long needed it. International conservationists see the Vjosa River as an example that could open the doors for more river protections across the world.

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In the US, construction of massive dams and power plants try to keep up with the demand for energy, particularly threatening our rivers. If the Colorado River—despite the fact that it’s already lined with dams and developments—were to achieve full-scale protections akin to the Vjosa River, it could mean prevention of further damage down the road. It could mean a revived river valley and an influx of economically stimulating eco-tourism outside the pre-existing national parks and along the borders of Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Rivers like this one require intervention in order to keep them—and the communities that rely on them—alive for future generations. It’ll take concerted collaborative efforts from state governments, the federal government, the National Park Service, and conservation groups, but the benefits are myriad, clear, and crucial. For newfound hope, we need only look to Albania, where the designation of the world’s first wild river national park proves the possibility of the seemingly impossible.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.