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1 February 2006 The Altai Assistance Project
Matt Foley, Chagat Almashev, Alton C. Byers
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The Altai Republic, known as “the Switzerland of Russia” (, is located on the southwestern edge of Siberia, in the Russian portion of the Altai-Sayan range which continues into Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. It is a spectacularly beautiful, unspoiled, and undeveloped land of forests, open rangeland, and mountain peaks up to 4500 m. In 1998, 5 separate nature sites of the Altai Republic were inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site known as the “Golden Mountains of Altai.” About 22% of the Republic's 92,900 km2 is in Russian federally protected areas, either as zapovedniki (strict nature preserves, where no human use is ordinarily allowed) or zakazniki (less strictly protected recreational areas). The Altai's 200,000 inhabitants have long been among the poorest in Russia. About 70% of the population is Russian, while about 30% is of Turkic and other native origins, concentrated in the mountainous areas nearest the southern borders. Agriculture, mostly in the form of livestock raising, is the primary occupation.

With the disappearance in 1991 of Sovietera domestic travel restrictions and the explosion in private automobile ownership, mass tourism has now come to the Altai, which is within a day's drive of at least 5 million inhabitants of the industrial cities on the west Siberian plain just to the north. Tens of thousands of tourists arrive annually, many in cars (Figure 1). Others come on public and private buses, some after flying into the nearest large city of Barnaul from European Russia. Outside of some establishments along the principal river, the Katun, there are as yet few facilities or designated areas for tourists, whose numbers are now sufficient to have an impact on the natural environment as well as the cultural heritage of the local people. Complicating matters are the facts that Russian citizens are entitled to roam at will because all land is state owned; the largely open, unfenced landscape facilitates easy access; and “pack it in, pack it out” camping ethics are unknown to most people.

Dealing with the natural and social effects of the rapid growth of tourism, as well as the impending privatization of land, are the primary concerns of the Republic and local-level planning authorities. One of the strategies under development is the establishment of “Nature Parks” in particularly sensitive areas. Like the Adirondack Park in the United States, these are parks with people living in them which protect areas of environmental and cultural importance while allowing compatible human activities. The Altai now has 6 Nature Parks (Katun, Uch-Enmek, Chui-Oozy, Argut, Belukha, and Ukok) in the early stages of development, totaling over 553,475 ha in area. Unfortunately, the governmental, human, and technical resources available to turn these Parks into functioning entities are scant, and there is little knowledge upon which to draw.

The Altai and Adirondacks connect

In the mid-1990s, Ecologically Sustainable Development, Inc. (ESD), a non-profit land use consulting firm based in New York's 2,700,000 ha Adirondack Park, was hired by the Altai government to prepare a sustainable land use plan for the entire Altai Republic. The plan's preparation over a two-year period included a number of field trips in the Altai by Russian and American volunteer specialists. Although the plan was never put into effect, largely because of the stagnant and confused state of governmental and economic affairs in Russia at the time, it did establish a strong connection between the Adirondacks and the Altai Republic.

At the request of Altai NGOs, local communities, and the Altai government, the Altai Assistance Project (AAP) was established in 2003 by Matt Foley, a small hydro specialist who had worked for ESD in 1995, and Chagat Almashev, Director of the NGO Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai (FSDA). Using funding from the Weeden Foundation and Trust for Mutual Understanding, the AAP sponsored initial reciprocal visits by Altai and American teams in 2004 and 2005. The US team of 7 experts visited the Altai in July 2004, with each member of the team having a particular field of expertise relating to parks and planning. The return visit from the Altai to the Adirondacks took place in November 2004, with the group composed of 3 park employees, an environmental scientist, a tourism entrepreneur, and the AAP's Russian Director. Over a two-week period they met professional planners and governmental officials with administrative responsibility for public and private land use and parks, as well as students, environmental group representatives, tourism professionals, and private citizens.

Observations and impressions

It is difficult for people from a society at an earlier stage of economic development, and with a completely different form of property ownership, to comprehend the complexities of private and public ownership and regulation of environmentally sensitive areas in the United States. This includes either the formal structures or the underlying political relationships. The many meetings that were held eventually enabled the group to develop an understanding, after days of discussing the same subjects with different people who had varying viewpoints and job responsibilities. Meetings kept getting longer as the depth, complexity, and number of the Altai team's questions increased. Near the end of those meetings, when the team was concluding that the Altai should have something similar to the Adirondack Park's land use plan, we were able to show them that in fact an outline of one already existed, ie the Russian language copy of ESD's 1997 Altai Republic Land Use Plan, as well as the full-scale Russian resource maps used in its creation.

The Altai visitors went home with a new determination to work as a group toward putting plans for sustainable land use into effect in the Altai Republic, both in and outside of park areas, over the next 5 years. This particular five-year schedule was determined by the fact that Russia has begun a process of land privatization that is scheduled to finish in 2010. The next 5 years will therefore represent the best opportunity to put mechanisms in place that can preserve the culture and environment of the Altai mountains.

Next steps

In 2005, the AAP sponsored 3 interrelated activities. First, to help the Altai group to continue functioning as a group, it underwrote the modest cost of holding quarterly meetings in the Altai that were attended by Nature Park personnel and other interested parties. While the strongest supporters of protected areas work at the raion (county) level in widely dispersed geographical areas, and have little money for travel, 4 very successful meetings have been held as a result of AAP support. The meetings have been well publicized in the Republic, attendance has increased at each successive meeting, and the group has attracted the attention and participation of the Altai Republic's government as well as of established environmental organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund/Russia. At the third meeting, an “Association of Parks of the Altai” was formally established, ensuring that the group will continue to meet and function as a forum for park professionals, their supporters, and those with reason to deal with the parks as a body.

Secondly, an Altai group visited the US in August 2005, and an American group went to the Altai in late September. Since some members of the Altai group had visited the year before and the rest of the group had heard their report, less time was spent on familiarization and more time was spent meeting with people who might be sources of future assistance. As a result, the return American visit was composed of university faculty members and an NGO vice president who now expect to establish continuing relationships.

Thirdly, a group of 5 professionals from the Altai and their US-based AAP hosts spent two and a half weeks in the Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) National Park of Nepal, where people have been dealing with the environmental and social effects of tourism for more than 30 years and where locally-based tourism is now a viable alternative to subsistence agriculture for many. Guided by US and Nepali staff of The Mountain Institute (TMI), the group received daily, field-based lectures on the region's settlement, land use, landscape change, introduction of mountaineering and tourism, establishment of the national park and buffer zone, and benefits as well as challenges of large annual numbers of visitors to fragile, high mountain regions. They trekked from Lukla to Kala Patar, and back into the lower Thami valley, where they were able to view a full range of activities and projects that included 2 of TMI's on-going initiatives (the Sacred Trails and Community-Based Alpine Conservation and Restoration Projects) as well as local hydroelectricity projects, nurseries, park headquarters, local monasteries, local homes, and the park museum.

Individual impacts of the Altai group's visits

Ongudai Raion covers 11,700 km2, the size of a typical county in the US. Before becoming Chairman of the Land Use Department of the Ongudai District Administration, Danil Mamyev was a climber and citizen activist responsible for founding the “Nature and Ethno-Cultural Park Uch-Enmek” in a valley of ancient burial mounds and small farm villages looking up at sacred Mt Sarlik (2800 m). After visits to the US in 2004 and 2005, he went away impressed by the Adirondack Park and the fact that the state owns about half of the land and regulates the use of all of it for environmental conservation and sustainable development. He is now actively working to establish a similar plan of sustainable land use for all of Ongudai.

Another visitor in 2005 was Sergey Ochurdyapov, main specialist on “indigenous small-numbered people” issues, Administration of Kosh-Agach Raion. He is a lawyer whose job is running the Ukok Quiet Zone Nature Park, a 254,000 ha park established in May 2005. The Ukok Plateau is of internationally recognized environmental significance and is one of the Altai's World Heritage Sites. There are over two dozen endemic plant species and it is also inhabited by Argalli sheep and snow leopards. It was also the site of the 1993 discovery and excavation of an elaborate 2400-year-old frozen tomb containing the intact body of a woman of the Pazyryk culture. The southern border of the Ukok is the only place where Russia and China touch west of Mongolia, and there is a Chinese proposal to build a highway across it.

Additionally, real progress toward environmental protection has been made in the Republic in the last year. Indicative of a shift and coalescence of opinion, this year has seen, besides establishment of the Ukok Park, a “Committee on Natural Resources” set up within the Altai government, which has previously had no place for parks except within the Ministry of Tourism. The Committee will oversee the parks and also govern commercial resource use.

The Altai is also assuming a higher profile internationally as a result of continued exchanges and dialogue. Last summer, as mentioned previously, a number of western environmental organizations and their foundation supporters visited the Altai for the first time. Exchange among US and Russian academics is also growing.

The Altai Republic, remote and sparsely populated, has the feel of a dispersed small town. Like the Adirondacks or Vermont, it is a place where everyone seems to know everyone. A small group of motivated people can make a difference, and consensus leading to action is possible. In the last few years, the desirability of establishing protected areas has been an open question, largely due to lack of knowledge. The goal of the AAP is to expose people from the Altai to functioning land use plans which protect the environment while allowing human existence, and to provide help in putting such plans into place. By introducing viable models for land use and environmental protection, the AAP has helped Altai people move quickly and efficiently toward their goal of protecting their culture and their land. We feel that this sharing of experience and ideas has made a significant contribution to protecting this unique and wonderful place, and we plan to continue working toward this goal.


Chulyshman River Valley, showing a new road facilitating increased tourist access. (Photo by Matt Foley)

Matt Foley, Chagat Almashev, and Alton C. Byers "The Altai Assistance Project," Mountain Research and Development 26(1), 77-79, (1 February 2006).[0077:TAAP]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 February 2006
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