Defending Russian Wilderness

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. On the Pacific coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a volcano-studded scimitar slicing into the Pacific, Kronotsky Zapovednik, created in 1935, begins atop snow-topped volcanic cones. Its landscape descends into a valley of spouting geysers, which shoot steam high above riverbanks that can be 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”) mandated that its territory remain off-limits to human entry, except for protection by rangers and for studies or educational work led by scientists.

In the spring of 1992 Simonov took a course with Stephen Berwick, Ph.D. ’74, 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 finalize the proposal for submission to the World Bank. The review process would take years.

When Simonov’s Yale studies ended in 1993, he applied to Echoing Green for funding to do conservation work in Russia. So did his classmate Margaret Williams ’93, 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. Both Yale graduates got annual grants of $25,000 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 Stepanitsky, 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.”

At the current Moscow offices of BCC, 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.  

In 1993 Laura Williams ’99 (no relation to Margaret) arrived in Moscow to recruit a leader for a new WWF office in Russia. Stepanitsky suggested Vladimir Krever, a protected-areas specialist, who went on to work with Williams to dispense funds—provided mainly by WWF-Denmark—for research and education in zapovedniks. Coming at a time when the Russian government, besieged by a collapsing economy, was slashing the budget of the reserve system, WWF-Denmark’s aid plugged a few funding gaps. Treasure arrived, however, in 1996. The World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF) awarded $20 million for Russian nature conservation based on Simonov’s proposal from his Yale days. “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, respectively, 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 a reserve that breeds endangered species; $70 each to buy 10 inflatable boats for a reserve in Kamchatka; 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. 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.”

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