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Defending Russian Wilderness
In the Nation That Holds One-Eighth the Habitable
published in slightly shorter form in EnvironmentYale,
by Fred Strebeigh
Photography by Igor Shpilenok
(Additional photography by Igor Podgorny, by Fred Strebeigh, and courtesy of the Kremlin.)
President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, glancing to his right on May 27, 2010, at a high-level government meeting, said, "Let’s listen to the environmentalists." He looked at Igor Chestin, head of the Russia office of WWF (known internationally as the World Wide Fund for Nature), a guest among the high-government officials of the Presidium of the State Council. Not since 2003 had the president of Russia, then Vladimir Putin, convened the presidium to discuss environmental initiatives. That meeting, which produced almost no results, left Russian environmentalists fuming.
Cover photo Igor Shpilenok
If the government in Moscow--heir to a history of Soviet environmental mismanagement that helped desiccate the Aral Sea in Central Asia and melt down the Chernobyl reactor on the edge of Europe--begins listening to good environmental counsel, the global environment may reap huge benefits. Russia controls one-eighth the land surface of the habitable globe and one-fifth of its forested areas, which may store more carbon than the forestlands of any other country. It is also the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, second-largest exporter of oil and third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the United States.
Russian efforts to manage forestlands to maximize their ability to store carbon, rather than permit their destruction by fire or by sloppy logging, could significantly reduce the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and related impacts on climate change. Russian efforts to shift toward use of renewable energy such as wind power, available abundantly in Russia, could drive down its own high emissions. A reduced dependence on exporting fossil fuels could lessen Russia’s need for potentially polluting oil and gas exploration in the oceans of its continental shelf.
Floodplain forest, Nerussa River, Bryansky Les Zapovednik, nature reserve (Shpilenok)
A Russian decision to place environmental controls on the kinds of mineral exploration and oceanic transportation that occur in the increasingly ice-free ocean above its north coast could help protect Arctic regions against environmental damage. And protection of its waterways against pollution could make Russia a source of pure water in an increasingly thirsty world, since Russia possesses 9 percent of the world’s constantly renewing sources of water in its rivers and 26 percent of the world’s stored surface water (most of which is now so pure as to be potable without filtering) in its lakes.
Lake Baikal, reservoir of
approximately one-fifth the world's
The idea that Russia’s leaders would listen to Russian environmentalists’ entreaties runs contrary to the experience of many Russians and of people throughout the world. Indeed, most of the world seems unaware of the history and current work of Russian environmentalists on behalf of nature protection and conservation. International awareness about current Russian conservation efforts can, in the words of Professor Stephen Kellert of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, seem as dim as a "black hole."
A familiar view appeared this summer in the New York Times, which reported in August 2010 that environmentalists trying to get their government to listen--with the only forum often being public demonstrations--have for years "risked arrests and sometimes beatings by the police and masked plainclothes thugs" and that "such efforts lead to little but holding cells or worse." Adding clout, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this summer warned demonstrators who failed to receive the right kind of advance permit (not always readily offered) to expect that "you are going to get beaten upside the head with a club." Putin is usually viewed as the nation’s environmental nemesis, beginning from the start of his presidency in 2000 when he dissolved the nation’s 200-year-old forest service and put the nation’s nature reserves under the management of a ministry whose historic role had been extracting resources by logging and mining rather than protecting nature. As if to complete the symbolism, then-President Putin named a builder of highways as the new minister in charge of nature reserves. A 2008 Newsweek article said that Russian "officialdom now seems to spend more time cracking down on ecologists than tackling ecological problems."
"Listen to the environmentalists"?
As Chestin of WWF prepared in May to ask Russia’s president to confront environmental challenges, he had reason to doubt that he would receive support. In opening the Presidium session (photo at left, via kremlin.ru), President Medvedev remarked that businesses need to see economic benefits if they attempt environmental modernization. Following the president, the federal minister of natural resources remarked that possessing huge territory had permitted the Soviet Union to ignore environmental issues. The governor of a southern state asked the President to give his constituents a conference center, ostensibly to start hosting environmental discussions. And a spokesman for Russian business argued that environmental improvement hurts national competitiveness. Those arguments offered snapshots of environmentalists’ fears: Soviet-legacy environmental errors might seem unfortunate but beyond remediation; pork-belly projects would get fresh greenwashing; business interests would continue to prevail over environmental concerns.
"Dear Dmitry Anatolevich," Chestin began, addressing the president with the greeting that characterized the small meeting. Chestin, looking fierce in his dark suit, a far cry from his preferred field naturalist’s garb, then went on attack: critiquing Putin’s unproductive 2003 session, which occurred in the same room, for failing to avert what became a decade of environmental missteps. Medvedev, interrupting as he had not done with other speakers, tried to block Chestin from dwelling on past problems.
Chestin charged onward. He attacked changes that took effect in 2000 with Putin’s presidency that eliminated environmental assessment of major public works, such as the construction of a ski resort within a national park, and weakened defense of protected natural areas (in which the few rangers who fight fires and arrest poachers now receive salaries as low as $200 a month, just above Russia's official subsistence level of $180). Chestin contended that the government had cut the number of rangers in Russia’s forests by more than 80 percent in a decade (from 70,000 to 12,000 according to one report), leaving Russia unprepared when wildfires erupted--as they did a few months after the Presidium meeting, in summer 2010, darkening Moscow with smoke.
Young volunteer (above left) helps rangers fight 2010 fire in Oksky Zapovednik (photo Igor Podgorny);
Tamara Makashova (right), head ranger, in patrol cabin, Sayano-Shushensky Zapovednik (Strebeigh)
Saying almost nothing, the President turned to
the other environmentalist invited to the session. Vladimir
Zakharov, a professor in the Russian Academy of Sciences and
president of an independent organization called the Center for
Russian Environmental Policy, argued that "ecology today is
economy"--the two are one. President Medvedev, remarking on
the environmentalists’ energetic style, said, "There must be
someone who beats an alarm." His praise felt
A Presidential View of "Ecology and Economics"
Nine days later President Medvedev went on the Web via video, as he often does when he wishes to speak to the nation (photo at left via kremlin.ru). Soft light slanted through a forested park behind him. When he began to make the point that was the title of his talk--"Ecology and Economics Do Not Contradict Each Other"--the camera cut from the forest to the previous week’s seminar table, starting with close-ups of Chestin and Zakharov. At this "ecological moment" in world history, President Medvedev said, "any normal economy must be environmentally friendly." He noted that his videos have elicited many environmental pleas from blogging constituents, and he praised those calling for new environmental laws and more ecological education.
Would a soft-light video be the only outcome of the president's meeting? No. Shortly afterward Medvedev released a list of 24 environmental orders to the Russian government. They included the following: Devise methods to calculate the economic value of environmental damage. Improve laws to protect Russia’s waters against oil pollution. Improve financing for Russia’s vast but underfunded protected areas, such as national parks and zapovedniks (nature reserves). Improve laws to reduce illegal logging and "corrupt ties" between forestry companies and government officials. Submit proposals to use anti-pollution fines to fund "eco-efficient and environmental technologies." Finally, he put in charge the one official whom many Russians believe may be more powerful than the president--Vladimir Putin, now prime minister and widely rumored to be awaiting the chance to run for president in 2012, who would be "responsible" for following through on all of the orders, many of which would address environmental problems that festered during his own presidency from 2000 to 2008.
Russian environmentalists were floored. WWF-Russia announced that the orders opened "a new chapter in conservation of our country."
Why listen to Russian environmentalists?
Has the Russian government started listening to Russian environmentalists? And if so, why? When I met up with Igor Chestin (photo at left via WWF), at the July 2010 staff meetings of WWF-Russia, along a meandering river south of Moscow, I asked about his recent access to high government officials. The previous April, Chestin had brought a young leopard from Iran to Russia and joined with Prime Minister Putin for its ceremonial release as part of efforts to repopulate a nature reserve in the Caucasus. The previous August, at a seminar on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, Chestin had challenged Putin much as he challenged Medvedev this past May. To account for his new access, Chestin explained some recent history.
First, large protests occurred in 2006 against a proposal to build a major oil pipeline across the north end of Baikal, estimated to hold one-fifth of the Earth’s surface fresh water, most of it drinkable without filtering. Those protests apparently led Putin, in a scene shown on Russian television, to walk to a map and, red marker in hand, instruct the pipeline company’s shocked director that the line must move, even at great expense, far north of the Baikal lakeshore. Russians rejoiced. Chestin added that demonstrations bringing masses of people to the streets must remain part of the tool kit for WWF and other environmental organizations. A month after we spoke, Chestin stood with a bullhorn in a Moscow square--at the type of unauthorized demonstration that riles Putin--addressing a throng of thousands who were protesting construction of a major highway through an old-oak forest. Four days later Medvedev suspended construction.
Lake Baikal (left) from Baikal-Lena Zapovednik, looking north (Shpilenok); Vladimir Putin (above right) in 2006 moving oil pipeline north of the lake.
Second, said Chestin, environmentalists’ new influence "coincided with a time when Putin started to get interested in large mammals. He loves them." Although I had seen photographs of Putin engaged recently in research expeditions that put him in contact with tigers and polar bears (anesthetized, at right), I balked at Chestin’s use of the word love. It seemed more like political posturing. But Chestin, ferocious as usual, insisted that for Putin the feeling is love: "I’ve seen his personal reactions."
When the government needs advice on environmental protection, it often must seek guidance from nongovernmental organizations like the WWF.
Vladimir Putin in Franz Josef Land
(photo via premier.gov.ru)
Vladimir Putin in Franz Josef Land (photo via premier.gov.ru)
Third, Chestin added, Putin’s presidency left the government bereft of environmental specialists in part because, as Evgeny Shvarts, now director of conservation policy for WWF-Russia, explained in a 2001 article for Russian Conservation News, the Putin-era evisceration of Russia’s federal services responsible for forestry, geology, water purity, nature protection and environmental safety left them with "almost no real responsibility" and led longtime employees to depart lest they later be treated as "scapegoats" for failing to safeguard the natural resources that they had been stripped of the ability to protect. Now when the government needs advice on environmental protection, it often must seek guidance from nongovernmental organizations like the WWF.
Origins of a Resurgence
If a resurgence of Russian environmental organizations is occurring, its origins can be traced to decisions in the 1990s by Russian academics and conservationists. Some of the most important involved a 23-year-old Russian environmentalist named Eugene Simonov, who enrolled in 1991 at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies as the Soviet Union was dissolving.
Evgeny Shvarts recalls a pivotal meeting in the Moscow apartment of a well-known oceanographer, Vadim Mokievsky. It included an eminent ornithologist, Viktor Zubakin; an assistant adviser to the President of Russia on environmental issues, Svet Zabelin; and the head of Russia’s nature reserves, a much-respected researcher-turned-administrator named Vsevolod Stepanitskiy (photo below left). Most of these men had become mentors to Simonov during his undergraduate years while he rose to leadership at Moscow State University in a legendary group called the druzhina (militia) for nature protection. The meeting decided, Shvarts recalls, to make "a direct order to Eugene" to raise money in order to save and "reform and transform the Russian and post-Soviet conservation system." With the Soviet Union in collapse, its zapovedniks--pristine nature reserves that had been protected for most of a century--were at risk of falling victim to hunters and loggers. Simonov does not recall a direct order, but he said the urgency they all felt during that time pushed him to begin a "save-the-zapovedniks program"--a quest to find funds to save Russia’s nature reserves.
a leader of Russia's nature reserve system since 1991, in
Bryansky Les Zapovednik (Strebeigh)
Vsevolod Stepanitskiy, a leader of Russia's nature reserve system since 1991, in Bryansky Les Zapovednik (Strebeigh)
At Yale on scholarship, Simonov had no philanthropic contacts. But he had an almost-unknown conservation story to tell: Hidden behind the Iron Curtain--defended for decades by Russian academics and researchers against the depredations of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and their followers--was the world’s greatest system of scientific nature reserves, begun in 1916 on the shores of 400-mile-long Lake Baikal.
Hidden behind the Iron Curtain, defended for decades by Russian academics and researchers, was the world’s greatest system of scientific nature reserves.
Descending down from granite ridges and peaks that begin almost a mile above the Baikal lakeshore, Barguzinsky Zapovednik defends a land of glacial amphitheaters, stone rivers, hanging valleys, upright inselbergs and stepped waterfalls. In its alpine valleys bloom golden rhododendron and purple Siberian tea. Clustered around hot springs--home to relic species like dwarf dragonflies that belong in the subtropics but survive in Barguzinsky--birches rise 90 feet, white and smooth as marble columns.
Team leader Tanya Yurchenko, of the
Where Barguzinsky reaches the granite cobbles of Baikal, the lake dives a vertical mile to the bottom--the deepest, oldest, most voluminous lake on Earth. Continuing deeper than its own lake floor, the great rift of Baikal descends through another four vertical miles of silt, carried in by tributary streams for some 25 million years. While the Earth’s other lakes have come and gone, Baikal has spread tectonically, enabling the evolution of hundreds of species found nowhere else on earth--all gaining at least partial protection from the presence around Baikal’s shores of three zapovedniks and three national parks.
In 1919 and 1920, at the urging of Russian scientists and naturalists, the new Soviet government began to make decisions that would foster a system of nature reserves. One early decision signed in 1920 by Vladimir Lenin (who loved hiking and had once imagined becoming a naturalist), created a zapovednik called Ilmensky to protect a mineral-rich region in the southern Ural Mountains. In the 1920s and 1930s, Russian naturalists traversed their continent to establish reserves. In the Russian Caucasus, Kavkazsky Zapovednik, founded in 1924 and soon intended to become the main site for reintroducing leopards into European Russia, descends from its peak at more than 11,000 feet through pastures that hold European bison and past cliffs that are home to an almost-acrobatic wild goat, the Caucasian tur (left, Shpilenok).
On the Pacific coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a volcano-studded scimitar slicing into the Pacific, Kronotsky Zapovednik (below, photo by Igor Shpilenok), created in 1935, begins atop snow-topped volcanic cones. Its landscape descends into a valley of spouting geysers, which shoot steam high above riverbanks as colorful as stained glass. In Kronotsky’s volcano-flanked lakes and rivers, salmon spawn in uncountable millions--as much as one-fifth of the world’s wild salmon spawn in the pristine rivers of Kamchatka. In one abundant Kronotsky-protected lake, where spawning salmon can number 2 million in a year, brown bear gather in the world’s largest concentration. Government designation of a zapovednik (a word based on "commandment") mandates that its territory remain off-limits to human entry, except for protection by rangers, studies by scientists, and environmental education that can permit bringing limited numbers of visitors.
Simonov got lucky at Yale. In the spring of 1992 he
took a course with Stephen Berwick, who was coordinating major
projects in international conservation for the World Bank.
After Simonov wrote a paper describing Russia’s zapovedniks,
Berwick suggested that it could become a funding proposal.
Once the term ended, Simonov wound up at Berwick’s home,
working 72-hour stretches to complete the proposal for
submission to the World Bank. The review process would take
Kronotsky Zapovednik in
Kronotsky volcano, Kronotsky Zapovednik in autumn (Shpilenok)
The first money Simonov brought back to Russia had nothing to do with the World Bank. When Simonov’s Yale studies ended in 1993, he applied to an organization called Echoing Green for funding to do conservation work in Russia. So did his Yale classmate Margaret Williams, who with his help had spent the summer of 1992 as an environmental educator in Magadansky Zapovednik on Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk at the edge of the Pacific. They each got grants for $25,000 per year for two years and headed to Moscow. Teamed with Simonov, Williams set about creating Russian Conservation News, which became an international publishing forum for leading Russian conservationists. Both worked under the umbrella of a newly created organization, Russia’s Biodiversity Conservation Center (BCC), which often seemed to run out of Simonov’s family apartment and, Williams recalls, was a vibrant intellectual salon, filled with leading Russian conservationists and flavored by the smoke from Simonov’s ever-present pipe. Williams, recalls Stepanitskiy, who met her in his role as director of the nature reserve system and then teamed with her at BCC, seemed "like an alive symbol of Russian-American cooperation."
The return of Simonov created energy, in part because he quickly spread the wealth from his $25,000 grant. At the current Moscow offices of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, its walls covered with protected-area maps, I was regaled with stories by Nikolai Sobolev, who in the early 1990s had served in Russia’s Ministry for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. As Sobolev recalls, Simonov introduced the idea of adding "ecological corridors" to help connect Russia’s impressive protected areas into interacting ecological networks. Sobolev also recalls that the Echoing Green grant got divided by Simonov into separate funds to start BCC’s ecological networks program; to inaugurate a Center for Russian Nature Conservation; and to sustain the BCC itself, which by 1994 provided at least part-time pay to 18 Russian environmental advocates. Simonov downplays such stories as part of a fanciful legend: Russia's devoted but embattled conservationists "told Eugene, a lonely warrior, to go to a far country and get the necessary treasure to support our nature reserves."
Eugene Simonov (above), carrying tumbleweed
into headwind, central Asia (photo courtesy Simonov)
Before any treasure could come from the World Bank, another arrival from America reached Moscow, and she too would play a role in the resurgence of Russian environmentalism. In 1993 Laura Williams (no relation to Margaret), age 24, with a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy and superb linguistic skills in Russian, came from Washington, DC, where her work had been funded by WWF. Vladimir Krever, a protected-areas specialist who is now WWF-Russia’s program coordinator for biodiversity, recalls getting a phone call from Stepanitskiy’s office asking him to come meet "a young girl from the United States." A vice president of WWF had sent her to inquire about starting a WWF office in Russia.
Soon Krever was "invited to work," he now recalls with an amused chuckle, "under Laura's supervision." WWF rented them a two-bedroom Moscow apartment to serve as an office, and they began inviting applications from nature-reserve directors. One young director who arrived with an application was the crusading naturalist-photographer Igor Shpilenok, now Laura's husband. (A disclosure: I taught classes including Laura and Margaret Williams at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and I knew Eugene Simonov in his student days. Later I collaborated with Igor and Laura, in photo at right, in writing articles on Russia's zapovedniks for Sierra and Smithsonian.) With a few early grants in the range of $100,000 each, funded mainly thanks to WWF-Denmark, Krever and Laura Williams started sending money to support research and education in zapovedniks. But they were fighting a financial crisis. The Russian government had cut the budget of the nature reserve system from 1990 to 1995--according to inflation-adjusted calculations made by Aleksandr Nikolsky, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences who was the last director of the system before the end of the Soviet Union--by about 95%.
In 1996, treasure arrived. The World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF), in response to Simonov's proposal from his Yale days, had decided to support Russian nature conservation with $20 million. "It was like an explosion for us," Krever recalls. "It was an incredible amount of money for Russia in the middle of the 1990s."
Suddenly Simonov and Laura Williams, while continuing at BCC and WWF-Russia, were lead consultants, working to apportion millions of dollars allocated by the GEF, and Margaret Williams became a contributing expert, focusing on nature reserves. Simonov insisted, against GEF’s preference for a few large allocations, on sending lots of grants to lots of reserves, supporting some 750 projects that had impact throughout the continent--allocations like the following: annual $1,600 salaries for anti-poaching rangers to protect Russian tigers; payments of $12 a ton for 475 tons of winter feed annually for rare European bison (at left, photo by Shpilenok) at a reserve that breeds endangered species; and an annual $2,400 salary for a scientist to manage a project for restoring rare cranes in flood plains near the Amur River along the Chinese border (photo below, Khingansky Zapovednik). Simonov pushed another policy: get money into the hands of underpaid Russian scholars and naturalists, rather than overpaid outside consultants. "We were managing this $20 million in bags of $1,000 to $20,000," recalls Simonov, and "it drove the World Bank wild." (In those years of a mostly cash economy, they really did use bags.)
The final GEF report praised Simonov’s project for success that had "no analogs in the scale of public participation (over 110,000 people) in practical activities on biodiversity conservation and restoration" and that sent funds to "82 of Russia’s 100 nature reserves." Berwick said that for Simonov to have convinced GEF to let him--a young Russian in his mid-20s--allocate millions of dollars to researchers spread across thousands of square miles of Siberia is "just a total reflection of his energy and brains."
Spreading funds widely meant that Simonov had managed a pervasive revitalization of Russia’s conservation community. Soon many of Russia’s leading conservationists, a large proportion with doctorates, began to work with Simonov and Margaret Williams at BCC or with Krever and Laura Williams at WWF, in the process creating durable organizations. The years took on the aura of a golden age. The acreage of Russian nature reserves jumped in the 1990s to 83 million from 52 million--approximately catching up, for the first time since the 1950s when Stalin cut them back in both size and number, with the acreage of America’s national parks.
Vladimir Andronov & Rimma Andronova, crane researchers,
Khingansky Zapovednik, along the Amur River (Strebeigh)
Then came the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin. His appointment of a former highway builder as the new Minister of Natural Resources — in charge of mining, logging, and now also pristine nature reserves — led to an assault on the integrity of reserves, whose directors were told to make their lands pay. Speaking in front of the directors on October 7, 2001, the new Deputy Minister for Natural Resources in charge of finance declared that zapovedniks should earn money by cutting forests in their "buffer zones," which help protect the core areas of some zapovedniks. In an exchange that Vsevolod Stepanitskiy recalls vividly, the Director of Altaisky zapovednik, founded in 1932 in spectacular mountains near the Mongolian border, asked a naive question: "What if a zapovednik does not have a buffer zone?" The deputy minister answered instantly that those zapovedniks must designate some zapovednik forests as "buffers" and then proceed with cutting and selling.
In response, two months later Stepanitskiy quit his job as director and, joined by some members of his team, moved to work with WWF, where he could continue defending Russia's nature reserves. Publicly he announced that he could not stand to watch while the work of his department descended into "useless make-work." When your "work is the work of your life," he continued, "you go to the office with pleasure." But "when going to work is like going behind enemy lines, this is not for me." As one indicator that nature-protection had gone retrograde, in 2005 he noted that the failure to create any zapovedniks from 2001 to 2004 under Putin was matched in duration only by the years from 1951 to 1954.
A Spreading Environmentalism
In the past few years, however, changes for the good of the Russian environment began to appear. As I traveled this summer in Russia’s two major cities (Moscow by subway and St. Petersburg by bicycle) to meet with environmentalists, I heard a few key ingredients that may contribute to new Russian environmental leadership.
Build on sound science
Fulfilling a dream of decades, a coalition of 200 Russian researchers, led partly by Krever of WWF, in 2008 completed a thorough analysis of gaps in Russia’s protected areas, such as failures to protect species or ecosystems. It found, for example, that among Russia's rare and threatened species, protection was adequate for only 51 percent of mammals, 41 percent of birds, and 36 percent of reptiles. Their gap analysis calls for increasing Russia’s total protected areas to 500 million acres, 10 percent of the country--a number reached, Krever says, based on scientific justifications such as adequacy of protection for Russian wildlife.
Stepanitskiy, rehired by the government to run the office of zapodveniks and parks, is now drawing on this analysis to make a case for greatly expanding Russian protected areas. Although the numbers were not yet official when we spoke in July 2010, Stepanitskiy told me that a hoped-for target would be 11 new zapovedniks and 20 new national parks by 2020. He declined to predict a total area, but another source told me that Stepanitskiy’s team hoped to increase zapovedniks by 5 million acres, to more than 88 million, and to nearly double Russia’s national park lands to 38 million acres.
Botanist Irina Nevedomskaya with rare rhododendron,
crater of Golovnin Volcano, Kurilsky Zapovednik, Kuril Islands (Strebeigh)
Federal funding must increase, said Stepanitskiy, but he has managed for years on slim budgets: $128 million in 2011 for Russia’s 102 zapovedniks and 42 national parks, covering 107 million acres. (His 2011 budget would run America’s National Park System, at 84 million acres, for 16 days.) Winning protection for more than 20 million more acres within a decade may prove tough in a difficult economy. But, says Stepanitskiy--renowned as a defender of nature who has quit his job three times in order to upbraid government from outside, and who three times has been rehired--"I will be doing my best."
Build support through education
Since the mid-1990s Stepanitskiy and some of his colleagues have been urging researchers in zapovedniks and national parks to embrace an educational as well as a scientific mission. He smiled when describing a yearly event called "March for Parks," suggested in spring 1995 by Margaret Williams (photo right, in Kurilsky Zapovednik). Stepanitskiy at first doubted that this idea, which Williams learned from an association that supports parks in America, would catch on in Russia; Simonov mocked the idea as too "socialist." Nonetheless, in spring 1995 school children held a science conference in Laplandsky Zapovednik, cleaned up a river basin in Voronezhsky Zapovednik, discussed environmental problem-solving in Kostomuksha Zapovednik, and more. Last year, 2009, under the direction of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, March for Parks involved nearly half a million Russians, with 40,000 volunteers conducting 520 environmental projects and raising more than $160,000 for zapovedniks and national parks.
"Zapovednik Place" by Daria Kryuchenkova (Дарья Крюченкова), age 15, Ufa (southern Ural Mountains),
award recipient for artwork in 2009 March for Parks (watercolor above via Biodiversity Conservation Center)
Educational training for zapovednik staff is now coordinated in Moscow by the Environmental Education Center "Zapovedniks," under the direction of Natalia Danilina (photo below right), a former vice president of the Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Among the messages her educators promote, says Danilina, is that Russia’s transition to democracy makes it "impossible to conserve nature only with a gun"--that armed rangers, who once stopped citizens from intruding in zapovedniks, need to become also informed educators. (One of the best eco-walks I've taken in my life was led, a few summers ago along the Baikal lakeshore in Barguzinsky Zapovednik, by a 20-year-old ranger, Ilya Golubtsov (photo left), who grew up in the reserve and could identify every hint of wildlife, from distant birdcalls to trailside bear markings. He also made clear that no visitor could depart from our one thin trail--we were not in a park but in a zapovednik, which mandated that our footsteps there were limited and precious.) In the new Russia, Danilina wants "our electorate" to understand the values that lie behind strict protection of significant landscapes in the natural world.
Ilya Golubtsov (above left) roasting fish at campfire, Lake Baikal;
Natalia Danilina (above right) in her Moscow office (Strebeigh)
Go to the streets
In April 2010, under a bright blue sky, three young Russians wearing blaze-orange jumpsuits and climbing gear strolled from a Moscow street toward a 20-foot-high fence that protects the grand entrance of the Russian White House, headquarters for Prime Minister Putin (photo left). Each climber, "Greenpeace" emblazoned on his back, zipped upward to a position astride the fence. They unspooled a 100-foot-wide, lemon-yellow banner, its jet-black letters as high as six feet, asking: "Who's enemy of Baikal No. 1 of 13 January 2010?" The obvious answer would be Putin. His decree (marked "No. 1") on January 13 had opened Lake Baikal to renewed pollution by an antiquated paper-making factory that dumps chlorine, dioxins and other pollutants into the otherwise pure lake. Armed White House guards raced towards the fence. They made no arrests. The Greenpeace climbers walked away.
Baikal banner (above and right) at White House, April 27, 2010 (photo Igor Podgorny)
In Moscow, I asked Andrey Petrov, head of his nation’s Greenpeace program to support World Heritage sites (Lake Baikal is one) if he thought the guards might have fired on his climbers. "I hope no," he said, mumbling slightly. But such bold actions for Baikal, he continued, would remain "part of our chain of actions" and "we will not stop before the point at which we solve the problem."
Go to the world
As we spoke in July 2010, Petrov (right) was preparing to fly to Brasilia for the annual meeting of the UN’s World Heritage Committee. He would take a letter by members of the Russian Academy of Sciences that accused Putin of violating Russia’s agreement, made when it nominated Lake Baikal for World Heritage status, to stop the mill from polluting the lake's crystal-clear waters. The Academicians condemned the mill for generating atmospheric emissions and 86% of all water pollution entering Baikal.
Andrey Petrov with Valley of the
Geysers, Kamchatka, in background on bulletin board
Andrey Petrov with Valley of the Geysers, Kamchatka, in
background on bulletin board (Strebeigh)
Two weeks later, the World Heritage Committee announced its Baikal decision. Under evident pressure in Brasilia, the Russian government committed itself to end the plant’s pollution of Baikal within 30 months. Based on this promise, the World Heritage committee refrained from issuing sanctions. Russian environmentalists remain wary of breakable promises, but they showed they can work successfully with a mix of local and international forces to press their government on environmental issues.
Collaborate across oceans
In late summer 2010, Tom Brokaw (NBC News) and James Wolfensohn (former president, World Bank) joined the head of the Wild Salmon Center, Guido Rahr -- a sixth-generation Oregonian whose family witnessed the disappearance of wild salmon from their home rivers in Oregon--on one of the world's great salmon rivers, flowing beneath the volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula.
They spent days doing catch-and-release fly fishing and evenings discussing ways to help defend Kamchatka's wildlife for all time. Rahr first fished Kamchatka rivers in 1993 in the company of a legendary Russian fisheries biologist, Mikhail Skopets, thanks to guidance from his Yale classmate, Margaret Williams. Fishing then with Skopets, who works in Russia's Institute of Biological Problems of the North and whom Rahr calls "the Indiana Jones of salmon in the Russian Far East," Rahr learned that perhaps as much as one fifth of the world's wild salmon spawn in the pristine rivers of Kamchatka.
Kamchatka salmon (Shpilenok)
When Rahr presents his vision for Wild Salmon Center's current work in Russia, as he did in a half-hour session that helped encourage Wolfensohn to become an ally, the key document is a map that shows a Russo-American littoral arching almost unbroken across the North Pacific--a necklace with pendant peninsulas and deepcut bays that twists thousands of miles with only a single gap, 55 miles at the Bering Strait, where Asia until some 15,000 years ago bridged to America. That map shows most of the world's great preserved salmon rivers, many of them mapped for emphasis in ruby red. A few, like small jewels, appear as vestigial decoration along the coast of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; an abundance of ruby shows above Bristol Bay in Alaska; and as the necklace reaches Russia, rubies large and small array themselves around both coasts of wasp-waisted Kamchatka and continue on to the flanks of Sakhalin Island and then mainland Russia before the ruby-colored gleam stops abruptly, north of China. That map, showing in ruby red the salmon riches that the Americas have mostly lost (except in Alaska) and Russia mostly retained, combines well with Rahr's main argument about salmon rivers: Save them before you lose them. Restoration costs more, and works worse, than protection of what the world has not lost.
Kamchatka brown bears and salmon (Shpilenok)
Working with Russian scientists as Rahr has since 1993, and now collaborating with Moscow State University and the governor of Kamchatka among others, the Wild Salmon Center in 2006 helped create what it calls "world's first protected area dedicated to wild salmon conservation," an area of 544,000 acres (more than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island) that protects the entire watershed of a crystalline river called the Kol. An allocation of about $200,000, part of a collaboration linking WSC with the Global Environment Facility (which is contributing $3 million to a shared project supporting conservation and sustainable use of salmon in Kamchatka), went to creating a riverside research station (photo at left, via Wild Salmon Center) where biologists from Moscow and Kamchatka now team with Americans to develop lessons for salmon conservation. Out ahead, WSC hopes Kamchatka will offer forms of protection, including ones that would support controlled tourism and a mix of commercial fishing and sport fishing, to a total of nine Kamchatkan river systems--protecting 6 million acres of salmon-rich watersheds and the high numbers of bears and eagles that thrive there thanks to salmon. These efforts in thinly populated Kamchatka--larger than California but with only 110,000 inhabitants living beyond the streets of its one small city--align with a view expressed in 2009 by Olga Krever, former head of a department for protected areas in Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources who is now working partly with Wild Salmon Center: "Only in Russia do we still have the chance to preserve large areas and intact wilderness."
"Only in Russia do we still have the chance to preserve large areas and intact wilderness."
Kuril Lake (above left), South Kamchatka Sanctuary (Shpilenok)
In late August 2010, Prime Minister Putin joined the director of Kronotsky Zapovednik in a small speedboat for a close look at Kamchatka’s abundant bears and salmon. The excursion gave the new director, Tikhon Shpilenok (son of Igor), an opportunity to describe poaching horrors. After hearing about the slaughter of hundreds of bears in a recent year, sometimes just for their paws, and salmon by the thousands, slit open for their roe and left to rot, Putin expressed outrage. He said Kamchatka could become instead the world’s premier place for eco-tourism. Asked why he spends so much time among wild animals, Putin replied, "Because I like it. I love nature."
Prime Minister Putin
drives, with Kronotsky director Tikhon Shpilenok
In November 2010 (as this article was being printed), Putin hosted a summit of world leaders, including the premier of China, to focus on saving wild tigers from extinction. Putin announced proudly that "Russia is the only country in the world whose tiger population has significantly grown since the mid twentieth century"--from about 30 tigers to a current population near 500, thanks significantly to work begun by researchers in Russian zapovedniks. By collaborating in an unprecedented effort by government leaders (joined by the current head of the World Bank) to protect these "splendid big cats" and their wide-ranging habitats, Putin announced, "we are saying that human civilization can only develop sustainably if we take a responsible attitude to nature, our common home."
Vladimir Putin with researchers and radio-collared tiger, Ussuri Zapovednik (photo via premier.gov.ru)
Vote for an environmental president?
What to make of a Russian Prime Minister who, though he slashed Russia’s environmental protections when first elected President in 2000, now insists that he "loves nature"? And what to make of a Russian President who orders his government to do what Russia’s environmental leaders have asked and who has called Russia's wildfires of summer 2010 "a wake-up call" telling the world's leaders that they must "take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate"? Why would Russia's leaders begin listening to and sounding like environmentalists?
The most interesting analysis I heard in summer 2010 came from Alexey Kiselev, a specialist on pollution issues, whom I met at the offices of Greenpeace in St. Petersburg. He had just finished a month of testing for dangerous chemicals in three iconic rivers--the Volga, the Neva, and the Moscow. Traveling aboard the Greenpeace ship Beluga II, he had deplored some ugly pollution and admired another vast lemon-colored banner, which a Greenpeace action team had draped in May over a bridge across the Moscow River near the Kremlin. The banner proclaimed, in Russian and English: "Putin! Ban Toxic Discharges To Our Rivers." Again wearing bright orange, the young Greenpeace team slipped off unarrested, this time cruising the Moscow River in inflatable dinghies.
Banner on Moscow River, May 20, 2010 (photo above, Igor Podgorny)
Reminding me that President Medvedev’s recent orders for environmental improvements listed Putin as "responsible," Kiselev suggested Medvedev was firing a first pre-election salvo at Putin: You broke it. Now accept responsibility for trying to fix it.
At a time when many Russians were wondering if they might in 2012 see the first hotly contested presidential election in their history, pitting Putin against Medvedev, Kiselev suggested a direction I had not heard. Perhaps each of Russia's current leaders, sensing a spreading environmentalism among the people, was preparing to campaign that he would be the president best able to defend Russia's splendid but recently besieged environment. In any event, an ecological vision of "our common home" has apparently found new spokesmen atop the government that holds one-eighth of our populated globe. Russia’s leaders may sense--in the thousands of citizens who march for parks or rally for Baikal or flee from raging fires--the beginnings of a broad environmental awakening.
Fred Strebeigh, senior lecturer in
the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and
the Yale Department of English, has written for Atlantic
Monthly, Audubon, New Republic, Russian
Life, Sierra, Smithsonian, the New York
Times Magazine, and the books division of the National
indebted for the chance once again to share pages with the
photography of Igor Shpilenok, whose work can be seen
collected at <http://www.shpilenok.ru/> and growing daily at
<http://shpilenok.livejournal.com/> . Igor Shpilenok's
photography is becoming as important to
article first appeared in slightly shorter form in
EnvironmentYale, Fall 2010, pages 2-9 and 28, available