Back to the Future in the Land of Genghis Khan

Article excerpt

If there is one certainty in this last decade of the 20th century, it is uncertainty. Change is the order of the day in the lives of individuals and nations. That is especially so in matters of natural-resource protection and management, given the growing concern about preserving biodiversity and crafting new forms of sustainable forestry.

In the United States, however, we seem locked into present conceptions of such fundamental matters as property fights, the public trust doctrine, and land-use planning systems; we creep timidly into the "new world order" only as events elsewhere force us to change. We are masters at incrementalism, preferring, as I once described it, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than to ask tough questions about the state of our nation and spaceship Earth.

A colleague of mine has suggested that the problem is one of perspective. We can see ourselves and our environment only from the perspective of another environment. Travel, for one example, can help us see our own home with new eyes. Likewise, we can understand the present only from the vantage of history, or the future.

I suggest, therefore, that we might learn some important lessons if we could somehow escape the present and familiar places. As a kid, one of my favorite books was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The idea of taking modern ideas and a Colt revolver back to medieval England fascinated me. What fun it must have been to invent all those modern gadgets back in the past. That youthful fantasy was revived for me by the Back-to-the-Future movie trilogy starring Michael J. Fox, especially the third episode when he goes back to the Old West.

Last summer I took the trip myself! I spent six weeks in the Republic of Buryaria, the homeland of Genghis Khan and, as many anthropologists believe, the ancient homeland of North American Indians. My time machine was a 10-hour flight on Aeroflot from Moscow to Irkutsk, which was as harrowing as Michael J. Fox's ride on the steam train that pulled his time-car back to the future in the third episode. Little did I imagine that only a few weeks after my return, the Soviet Union would disappear.

One of my hosts in Siberia was Oleg Popov, who as deputy minister of forestry is Buryatia's highest-ranking professional forester. Oleg is a bright, affable man about my age (old enough to remember World War II) who loves his job and the land where he lives. Like most foresters in the world, he works and plays hard. He enjoys the fellowship of foresters, good food, and good vodka. We got along famously.

The discussions with him and his staff described in this article include a composite of conversations with other officials in Russia. I expect that Oleg would be comfortable with this extension of his remarks and those of his staff.

Oleg Popov is the Buryat Republic's equivalent of our chief of the U.S. Forest Service and the directors of the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management combined. Popov, and his counterpart in the neighboring Siberian oblast (state) of Irkutsk, are responsible for an area of land about the size of the U.S. National Forest System. The approximately 200 million acres are divided into several hundred forestry districts and include national parks and wilderness areas, a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, and dozens of smaller nature reserves and wildlife refuges (some a century old).

This Siberian forest is truly a Land of Many Uses, including extensive timber harvesting and livestock grazing; some of the richest mineral deposits and oil, gas, and coal fields on earth; a growing tourist industry; spectacular wilderness; and the watershed of a legendary lake that holds more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. This world-renowned Lake Baikal region contains thousands of rare and endangered plants and animals, most of which occur nowhere else on earth. …