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Russian Nature

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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Nature Protection and Conservation

<<< Nature Protection and Conservation: Introduction | Environmental Problems Index | Territorial Forms of Nature Protection >>>

History of Conservation: Efforts and Attitudes

Practices of environmental protection and withdrawing lands from economic development for the purpose of conservation have a long history in the countries of Northern Eurasia. The first legal framework for the use of natural resources was introduced more than a thousand years ago in the Kievan State. The Slavs practised temporary prohibition in certain areas during the period of game fauna reproduction, and hunting and fishing periods were also defined (Bannikov, 1974). The first protected areas were established in Northern Eurasia between the llth and 13th centuries in the richest game areas, where the nobility hunted.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a system of protected forests was established in central and southern European Russia as woodlands were coming under pressure. In previous centuries, forests in this region protected settlers from nomadic invasions. However, later they began to serve as a refuge for the fauna of broad-leaved forests. Fragments of these ancient forests have remained in the Tula (the so-called Tula Zaseki), Orel, and Kaluga (Kaluga Zaseki) regions of Russia (Chapter 10). At the same time, protected areas were also established in the north on the Solovetskie islands in the White Sea, in the upper courses of the West Siberian rivers, the Konda, and the Sosva (where beaver habitats were protected), in the forests of Lithuania and Belorussia (Belarus) (what is now a famous national park Bieloweza Puszcza) and on the archipelago Sem Ostrovov in the Barents Sea. Hunting laws, which were very close to the current regulations, were introduced in Central Russia in l676 (Shtilmark, 1996).

The issues of forest use and protection are discussed in detail above. Here, I will only briefly note that extensive regulations, aimed at the preservation of old forests in the large river valleys and around cities, were introduced during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725). The laws were focused on conserving oak woods and pine forests which provided timber for the construction of navy vessels. Also, it was well understood that clearing of riparian forests leads to the depletion of water resources. Despite these efforts, vast forests were cut to provide material for construction purposes, production of charcoal and potash, and cleared for agricultural expansion (Chapter 10). As a result, 18th-century Central Russia forests occupied only about 25 per cent of the territory (Tsvetkov, 1957; and Figure 23.2).

In contrast to Central and Western Europe, for a relatively long time human impacts on nature in Russia were local and did not cause large-scale landscape and biodiversity changes. The largest impacts on landscape were brought about by the expansion of the Russian state into forest-steppes and steppes from the second half of the 16th century. In the next three hundred years, woodlands were cleared in the forest-steppe zone and steppes were ploughed up in the Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, and southern Urals. Decades of intensive cultivation of fertile black soils, overpopulation, and utilization of unsuitable plots for arable agriculture in the forest-steppes, initiated widespread development of erosion in the 18th and 19th centuries. In many areas, particularly in the forest-steppe and northern steppes, the potential of land for crop production decreased and living standards of the rural population declined. At present, about 75 per cent of the European steppes are under the plough and the biome of broad-leaved forests has been largely transformed so that oak woods occur mostly within the protected areas. A new field biome has replaced much of forest-steppe and steppe biomes and its boundary is moving north (Tishkov, 1996; Mordkovich et al., 1997).

Sadly, as frequently pointed out by the observers of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet environment, a typical feature of all environmental efforts in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and FSU is that extensive legislative initiatives frequently prove to have limited effectiveness in practice. Despite the prohibition on forest cutting around cities, in riparian zones and on slopes, private owners continued timber harvesting on unsuitable plots for a long time. Many hunting regulations were disregarded because the fur trade was an extremely profitable business for both private individuals and the state. Successful international trade in fur intensified hunting in Siberia in the 19th century, leading to a dramatic reduction in beaver and sable populations. In the European territory, elk, brown bear, otter, roe deer, and a number of bird species (e.g., little bustard) became rare through commercial and sport hunting. Under these conditions, the best way to preserve nature was to adopt a territorial form of protection and to create a network of protected areas with a strict conservation regime. Unlike many other environmental initiatives, this approach worked remarkably well. The first nature reserve was established in 18 74 and now the FSU has one of the world's best systems of protected areas.

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