Russia's New Revolution in Conservation Nation's First Private Nature Reserve Provides a Haven for Rare Cranes and a Place for People to Explore Wilderness

Article excerpt

WHEN naturalist Sergei Smirenski set out to create Russia's first private nature reserve since the Bolshevik revolution, he knew that the greatest obstacle would be overcoming bureaucratic resistance.

The Moscow State University professor has charted a steep uphill course through a variety of foes, from local wildlife service officials who covet his funding to government officials who saw more value in development than conservation. But with incredible dedication, and the support of a wide range of international donors from Japan to the United States, the Murovyovka Nature Park has finally come into being.

Founded at a small ceremony last summer, the private reserve covers 11,000 acres of pristine wetlands along the banks of the Amur River in the Russian Far East. Here, amid forests and marshes encompassing a variety of microhabitats, nest some of the world's rarest birds - tall, elegant cranes whose numbers are counted in the mere hundreds.

The creation of the park marks a new approach to nature conservation in Russia, one that combines traditional methods of protection with an attempt to adapt to the changing economic and political circumstances of the new Russia.

"There must be a thousand ways to save a wetland. It is time for vision and risk, and also hard practicality," wrote Jim Harris, deputy director of the International Crane Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization dedicated to the study and preservation of cranes, which has been a major supporter of the Murovyovka project.

Dr. Smirenski's vision has been eminently down to earth. At every step, he has tried to involve local officials, businessmen and collective farms in the project, giving them a practical, economic stake in its success. And with international support, he is trying to introduce new methods of organic farming that will be more compatible with preserving the wetlands.

Russia's traditional approach to nature conservation has been the creation of zapovedniks or nature reserves that are kept in a totally wild state, used only for scientific research. But this system has come under tremendous pressure in recent years as Russia's economic crisis has dried up government funding.

So naturalists such as Smirenski have tried to find new approaches that integrate the protection of ecosystems with human use. Zapovednik directors are now studying the use of ecotourism, for example, to raise funds. And at Murovyovka, the park has been created without a government role, amid intensive economic activity.

The land itself is leased for 50 years by the Socio-Ecological Union of Russia, an umbrella environmentalist movement that Smirenski is part of. The initial funding for the lease and the creation of the park came from a grant of $80,000 provided to the Wild Bird Society of Japan by POP Group Corporation, a Japanese textile firm.

"I try to give the money to the local people so they will have jobs through us," Smirenski says. This includes hiring a local builder to construct an educational center at the site. He is also planning to put money into a plant to make soy flour so that the local collective farms, whose farmland surrounds the wetlands, can process their stores of soybeans and find new markets for the flour.

An agricultural project is also under way to create an experimental farm to teach local farmers how to farm without the traditionally heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. …