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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
 
  COLD SWEAT:
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Freeze-Frame
 
  MORE FEATURES:
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
 
  DEPARTMENTS:
Spout
Create
Enjoy
Hey Mr. Green
Smile
Act
Explore
Grapple
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Bulletin
Last Words
 
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Where Nature Reigns

Russia’s underfunded yet vast ecological reserves are rich with brown bears, wild honey–and rare humanity.

In western Russia a shrouded figure hurtles through a boggy glade, flapping a white cotton cloak. Behind her run two fawn-colored chicks, Siberian cranes, among the most endangered birds on Earth. Ten weeks old and over three feet tall, the chicks chase the ghostly shape’s billowing costume–the color and size of an adult crane–with imprinted tenacity. She flaps; they flap. She hops and jerks through the sucky swamp; they hop and jerk. She leaps a fallen log and splashes down; they too leap over the log.

But they do not splash. Instead the two young cranes fly. They glide beneath dark oaks, beside white birches, above yellow water lilies. Where the glade ends, they flop to the ground. They hustle back to their flight instructor, 21-year-old student Tatiana Zhuchkova, who is mired in mud,sweaty with exertion, bloodied by mosquitoes, and proud as any parent. Tatiana raised these chicks from eggs. She taught them to eat mushed-up fish, and then wild strawberries and water striders. If Tatiana’s chicks and another six at this nature reserve can survive in the wilds of western and central Siberia, where they will be released at summer’s end, they may significantly increase the number of Siberian cranes remaining in those areas, now perhaps fewer than a dozen birds. (The species’ only substantial population, 3,000 birds in east Siberia, depends on vulnerable wetlands in China.)

While they prepare for relocation, these chicks live with Tatiana in the remote Oksky nature reserve, founded in 1935 to restore endangered species. She and other students work without pay, and sleep in a cramped loft above the chicks’ pen. A researcher’s job here, which only the best students can win, might pay $300 a year, just below Russia’s subsistence level. The low salary doesn’t worry Tatiana. She calls herself a "patriot," an "enthusiast"–not a new-Russian money-chasing capitalist. "After a few summers working with cranes," Tatiana says, "I can’t imagine life now without them."

Like scores of idealistic Russian naturalists before her, Tatiana has come to work in her country’s system of scientific nature reserves–the largest in the world. Most people beyond Russia’s borders have no idea that the nation devotes more land than any other to what the World Conservation Union calls "strict nature reserves," areas dedicated mainly to science and usually closed except to researchers. Russia’s 100 reserves cover some 83 million acres, an expanse equal to America’s national park system, but with stricter protections.

Through a century marked by ecocide–toxic releases, poisoned lands, nuclear accidents–Russian naturalists have battled, often against a totalitarian government, to save refuges like the one where Tatiana now works. The defense of Russia’s reserves represents one of the most heroic but hidden stories of nature conservation in the 20th century.

Russia’s tradition of creating national reserves to protect natural resources began with forestlands set aside by Czar Peter the Great in the early 1700s. But by 1890, Russian naturalists began to preach a new conservation gospel. Aware that the United States had started to designate national parks to serve people–to offer the public a "pleasuring ground," according to our Yellowstone Act of 1872–Russians advocated creating reserves to preserve nature instead. Keeping expanses of land unspoiled, they insisted, amounted to a commandment, a zapoved.

As one of the founders of Russia’s conservation movement declared in 1908, within these reserves, to be called zapovedniki, "nature must be left alone." Would humankind get no benefit? Yes, he declared: "We may observe the result." In each reserve, beginning with Russia’s first in 1916, one could enter as a scientist or as a student of nature–perhaps even (in a slight contradiction) work as a breeder to restore endangered species or as a ranger to protect them from poachers. But to most people, the zapovednik decreed: Into these wildlands thou shalt not go.

In 1919, the second year of the Soviet regime, Vladimir Lenin–a lover of hiking and camping who understood that hunters were driving some wildlife toward extinction–proposed drafting the legislation that led to a system of multiple nature reserves. Through three decades they grew to cover 31 million acres: technically inviolate, but ever threatened by Soviet strivers for economic growth. In 1951, Joseph Stalin, bent on a "Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature," slashed the reserve system to below 4 million acres. After a decade of fighting, Russian naturalists managed to restore them back to 15 million–before Nikita Khrushchev slashed them again. Less-repressive leaders eventually replaced the slashers, and the protected acreage had grown once more by the time Vsevolod Stepanitsky took charge of the system in 1991.

I ride with the former director one misty morning on horseback through a small forest reserve near the Ukrainian border. Astride his steed, with his brush mustache and broad smile, he reminds me of the young Teddy Roosevelt. While at a Moscow university in the 1970s, he led a brigade of students who traveled to nature reserves to combat poaching. One of his patrols discovered evidence of duck poaching by a deputy minister of finance for the Soviet Union. (Their youthful idealism had its cost: Since the founding of the first brigades in 1960, several students on patrol have been shot dead.) Later he worked in reserves, helped found a national conservation group, and in 1989 began assisting one of Russia’s newly elected, pro-environment legislators. At age 32, he became head of all Russia’s nature reserves.

Almost immediately, the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia’s economy plunged. As inflation soared and funding sank, the zapovedniki were left with only 5 percent of their previous annual budget. Drawing on his experience as a student and researcher, Director Stepanitsky decided to bet on his system’s idealists and use all the meager funds for salaries: $300 a year for a good ranger, $460 for a youngish head of scientific research, $870 for a top director. On these near-poverty wages, his bet was this: When you need food, you will plant potatoes. When you need a cabin, you will find an ax. And if you need uniforms or radios or computers, you will learn how to speak the language of the World Wide Fund for Nature. A decade later, his wager remains on the table. Crossing Russia with photographers Igor Shpilenok and Laura Williams, I set out to see what is protected (and threatened) in the country’s zapovedniki–and whether these vast reserves can survive a gamble that pits lofty ideals against deepening poverty.

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