Defending Russian Wilderness

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 Stalin cut them back, with the acreage of America’s national parks.

Then came the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin. The new president wasted no time in leading an assault on the integrity of zapovedniks, whose directors were told to make their lands pay. At a meeting of zapovednik directors in October 2001, a deputy finance minister told them to start cutting and selling forests in their nature reserves. In 2002 Stepanitsky quit his job as director, announcing that going to work was like “going behind enemy lines,” and took a job at WWF. He noted in 2005 that the failure to create any zapovedniks from 2001 to 2004 under Putin was matched in duration only by the same failure from 1951 to 1954 under Stalin.

A Spreading Environmentalism

Recently, a coalition of 200 Russian researchers, led partly by Krever, completed an 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, or 10 percent of the country.

Stepanitsky, 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 are not yet official, Stepanitsky told me that a hoped-for target would be 11 new zapovedniks and 18 new national parks by 2020. He declined to predict a total area, but another source told me that Stepanitsky’s team hopes 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. Federal funding must increase, said Stepanitsky, but he has managed for years on slim budgets: $63 million this year for Russia’s 102 zapovedniks and 41 national parks, covering 107 million acres. (His 2010 budget would run America’s National Park System, at 84 million acres, for eight days.) Winning protection for 20 million more acres within a decade to protect Russia’s biodiversity may prove tough in a difficult economy. Stepanitsky, not prone to hyperbole, said of the task ahead: “I will be doing my best.”

Since the mid-1990s, Stepanitsky has been urging researchers in zapovedniks to embrace an educational, as well as a scientific, mission. In 1995 Margaret Williams introduced the March for Parks, which inspired schoolchildren to hold a science conference in Laplandsky Zapovednik, clean up a river basin in Voronezhsky Zapovednik, build a nature trail in Bryansky Les Zapovednik, and more. Last year, under the direction of BCC, 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.

In April under a bright blue sky, three young Russians wearing blaze-orange jumpsuits and climbing gear strolled toward a 20-foot-high fence that protects the grand entrance of the Moscow White House, headquarters for Prime Minister Putin. 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 is the 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 toward the fence, but they did not fire. The Greenpeace climbers walked away. In Moscow Andrey Petrov, head of his nation’s Greenpeace program to support World Heritage sites (Lake Baikal is one), said such bold actions for Baikal would remain “part of our chain of actions … we will not stop before we solve the problem.”

As we spoke, Petrov was preparing to fly to Brasilia for the annual meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. He would take a letter from 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. Under pressure, the Russian government committed itself to ending the plant’s pollution of Baikal within 30 months. Based on this promise, the World Heritage Committee refrained from issuing sanctions.

In late August 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 Tikhon Shpilenok, the zapovednik’s director, an opportunity to discuss poaching slaughter, which left Putin sounding outraged. Asked why he spends so much time among wild animals, Putin replied, “Because I like it. I love nature.”

So what to make of Russian leaders claiming that they love nature and share the sentiments of environmental bloggers? Why would they begin listening to and sounding like environmentalists? As this summer’s record heat helped torrid wildfires advance toward Moscow, President Medvedev called the combination “a wakeup call to all of us” to “take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.” 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.

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Top of Page | Fall 2010 | environment:YALE