With an area two-thirds the size of the U.S., but only seven million inhabitants, the Russian Far East provides critical habitat for endangered species—from polar bears to Siberian tigers. Its Pacific coastline shelters feeding grounds for threatened marine mammals such as the Western Pacific gray whale and Steller sea lion. Over a quarter of the North Pacific’s wild salmon spawn on the Kamchatka Peninsula, feeding the world’s densest population of brown bears.
Russia is home to more than half of the world’s coniferous forests. The Russian Far East’s taiga rivals the Amazon Basin as a critical global carbon sink. Its forests trap greenhouse gases, helping protect the planet from looming climate change.
The people of the Russian Far East are the best hope for saving this exceedingly threatened and important wildland.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the Russian government and oligarchs encouraged rapid exploitation of the Far East’s timber, fossil fuels, minerals, and fisheries, endangering not only the region’s natural resources, but also local peoples’ livelihoods. The Russian Far East became a natural resource colony to feed the appetite of the Asia-Pacific and to fuel Russia’s ascent into the market economy.
Thankfully, a group of committed environmental leaders and communities is responding. Despite the threats, much of the Last Great Wild has been preserved in the last fifteen years. Since 1992, Russia has doubled the amount of territory protected in the Russian Far East, saving an area larger than the state of Maine.
Russia has changed some of the most egregious projects. For example, in 2006 President Putin himself changed the route of the Siberia-Pacific Pipeline away from Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake—a lake valued for holding one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, revered as a sacred site for the Buryat people, and identified as an iconic natural treasure for all of Russia. In the last year alone, grassroots groups secured pristine watersheds as protected territories, improved environmental standards for natural resource projects, and bolstered public participation in key environmental decisions.
The Russian Far East Conservation Fund provides a mechanism to support these groups—and many others—long into the future.