Russia’s Global Treasure

A National Network of Protected Land Needs Help

When most Americans think of Russian nature, they think of environmental catastrophe—Chernobyl, oil spills, pollution. Yet Russia, with one-eighth of the Earth’s land area, has one of the world’s premiere systems of strictly protected areas, called "zapovedniks." Few people outside Russia know of the system or its important part in sustaining the global ecological balance. Large tracts of virgin forest play a role in global ecology comparable to rain forests. Intact areas of wilderness allow large-scale animal migrations. Scientific data long collected in the zapovednik system could shed light on global climate change and ecological trends.

Russia’s zapovedniks provide a haven for these Siberian cranes, but budget cuts and extractive industries pose threats to the refuges" survival.
Igor Shpilenok

Russia’s first strict nature reserve—Barguzinsky Zapovednik—was founded in 1916 on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal to protect the endangered Barguzin sable. By the 1940s, the system had grown to 31 million acres. But in 1951, Josef Stalin cut the reserves down to fewer than four million acres, opening up protected areas for exploitation. Scientists fought to restore the system and today Russia’s 100 zapovedniks cover 83 million acres or 1.4 percent of the country. Zapovedniks harbor natural wonders, from the geysers and volcanoes of Kamchatka to the mountains ringing Lake Baikal and the last fragments of European steppe. Reserves were created to save critical habitat for endangered species such as the Siberian tiger, saiga antelope, Russian desman and black stork.

"Nowhere else has a country made such a commitment to strictly protecting nature as in the zapovednik network," says Margaret Williams (no relation to the author), director of the Center for Russian Nature Conservation (CRNC) in Washington, D.C. "In the U.S., we have no public areas that are entirely protected from human impacts. That is the founding tenet of zapovedniks." Williams became enamored with zapovedniks after volunteering in two Russian reserves and went on to establish a center to support exchanges between Russian and American wilderness managers.

Today Russia is struggling to uphold its commitment to conservation in the face of economic woes. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, government funding for the system fell 90 percent. Protected areas struggled to keep their experienced staff and safeguard their territories from poachers and economic exploitation. Realizing that the future of this important natural legacy was in the balance, international conservation agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank provided emergency funding in the early 1990s.

Russian scientist Victor Nikiforov approached WWF in 1991 with a plan to protect fragile Arctic habitats from growing pressures of oil and gas development. Two years later, with $50,000 from WWF, Nikiforov organized the Great Arctic Zapovednik, the world’s largest strictly protected nature reserve. In the next few years, Nikiforov’s role was paramount in the creation of four other zapovedniks, increasing the acreage protected in the Russian North by 50 percent.

Nikiforov is concerned that these lands might once again come under attack. "The Russian Arctic harbors some of the last global reserves of fossil fuels," he says. "The current policy of the Russian government promotes extraction of natural resources, while nature conservation and the environment have dissipated into the background." Recent large-scale development projects backed by western companies call for construction of oil pipelines and chemical processing of gold in close proximity to Arctic zapovedniks. Damming of rivers, commercial logging and extraction of fuels and metals also threaten the integrity of protected lands.

Economic pressures on protected areas accelerated in 2000 when Russian President Vladimir Putin abolished the State Committee for Environmental Protection, which managed the zapovednik system, and transferred its functions to the Ministry of Natural Resources along with the country’s burgeoning national parks system. Environmental impact assessments and protected areas planning is now in the hands of those most interested in developing Russia’s natural resources.

If ensuring protection of zapovedniks is not a government priority, then the public must be enlisted to help safeguard Russia’s natural heritage.

In 1996, Irina Sannikova had been working as a ranger in Khakassky Zapovednik in southern Siberia for only a week when a grass fire sparked her interest in working with the public. She invited a local television station to report on the damage human-induced fires caused to steppe habitats and discovered that local people were interested and wanted to know more. She organized lectures in schools, printed a newsletter, and invited people on excursions to the protected lands.

Realizing that environmental education activities cost money, and with the government only supporting staff salaries, she decided to find other funding. Wielding her charm and worthy cause, Sannikova won support for education activities from local businesses. Then she went to the Deputy Director of the Sayan Aluminum Plant in her region—one of the largest plants in Russia—and was given the funds she needed.

With support from business and industry, Sannikova established a regional foundation for environmental education, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for her activities. With public support gaining momentum throughout Russia’s zapovednik system, she helped create a national foundation for zapovedniks called Protected Russia.

"Russian industry is starting to blossom, and nature should blossom right along side it," Sannikova says. She has won support not by focusing on conflicts between nature conservation and development objectives, but by unifying people in industry and environment. "Every zapovednik needs a Sayan Aluminum Plant," Sannikova says. "One step at a time. You don’t get berries in the spring—first you get flowers."