Russian Refuge

Conservation begins with a private park.


"There must be a thousand ways to save a wetland," writes Jim Harris of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. His colleagues in Russia have come up with what they believe is one of the best: a private nature reserve and park.

Backed by conservation groups such as Harris's and by an international corps of business donors, Moscow State University professor and naturalist Sergei Smirenski has realized his dream of opening a private park that is simultaneously a wildlife preserve–home to such rare beauties as the red-crowned crane–and a recreation and education park. The Murovyovka Nature Park, which consists of 11,000 acres of marshes and forests along the Amur River in eastern Russia, has been leased from the government for 50 years by the Socio-Ecological Union of Russia, an environmental group Smirenski belongs to. The first $80,000 for the park was donated by the Wild Bird Society of Japan.

Although the park attracted support from around the globe, local wildlife officials in Amur sought a court order to block the project. They felt that as a public agency they could do a better job managing the lands than a private group could. The Christian Science Monitor reports that while the agency was initially successful in obtaining a court order, the local government, backed by officials in Moscow, has moved to have the decision reversed as illegal.

This power struggle reflects two different philosophies of conservation. The wildlife officials take the country's traditional wilderness approach to conservation, in which lands are off-limits to all human use except minimal scientific research. The Murovyovka Park's planners, on the other hand, believe in private management that allows for multiple land use and gives local residents and farmers an interest in the park.

"It really looks as if Russia is moving down the road to ecological property rights," says Jim Sheehan, an environmental policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "This demonstrates that a country with a clean slate is better off coming up with its own innovative ideas for conservation rather than simply following what the Western countries tell them to do."