Russia has announced the creation of a new national park that paves the war for a joint U.S.-Russian nature reserve on both sides of the Bering Strait. The new park will be in Russia’s remote Far Eastern Chukotka region, which is bordered by the Arctic and the Pacific and has few inhabitants; it is sometimes referred to as “the edge of the earth.”
The idea for the joint nature reserve was proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the Soviet Union who was in power during the dissolution of its empire from 1988 to 1991. Gorbachev emphasized cooperation with the U.S. and moved away from Cold War rhetoric and politics. But when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton agreed last September on the joint reserve, U.S.-Russian relations had fallen to a definite low and remain there.
Last week, Russia put the names of 71 U.S. nationals on what it is calling “The Guantanamo List.” This list is described as a “retaliatory measure” after the U.S.imposed sanctions — a visa ban and asset freeze — on Russian officials who have been tied to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer, and other abuses of human rights. Magnitsky, who worked for London-based Hermitage Capital, was arrested in 2008 after charging Russian officials with $230 million in tax fraud. He was denied medical treatment during 11 months in pre-trial detention on trumped-up tax evasion charges and died while in custody in 2009.
In response to the U.S. sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children on December 28. He has also criticized the U.S. for its efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and for supporting pro-democratic protests against him, including those by the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. The name of the Guantanamo List evokes Putin’s own description of conditions there as “like in medieval times.”
But the pronouncements of politicians are not a concern for the rich wildlife of the Bering Strait. These include migrating polar bears, walruses and huge colonies of seabirds. As World Wildlife Fund arctic expert Mikhail Stishov says, “We just wanted the national park.”
A 53 and a half mile strait separates Russia and Alaska. It is thought that a land bridge once connected the two continents and allowed people to migrate. The U.S.’s Bering Land Bridge national reserve has existed since the 1970 and is one of the most remote in the U.S., with populations of muskox, caribou and other “signs of ice age life.”
The joint U.S.-Russia venture is key to preserve wildlife in an ecosystem that provides one of the world’s richest feeding grounds for marine animals. But the region is now threatened by climate change; by waste from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and from other power plants that could cause radioactive pollution; and by industrial exploitation of its deposits of oil, natural gas, gold, silver and platinum. Increased cooperation on environmental monitoring is one of the benefits of the joint nature reserve; it can also help to preserve ties among indigenous peoples.
The new park in Eastern Chukotka is a reminder that the U.S. and Russia did once seek to work in concert. That it seems so hard to imagine the two nations joining together in pursuit of common goals underscores how political differences can impede the preservation of priceless ecosystems.
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