Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Center for Safe Energy Helps Establish First US-Ukrainian Sister National Park Agreement!

August 16 was a historic day between Ukraine and the US, and the Center for Safe Energy was honored to be a part of it. The newly established Nizhnidnestrovsky National Park in the Odessa region of Ukraine, and Florida’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve signed the first sister national park agreement between the US and Ukraine.

Both parks are amazingly similar in their terrain, historic significance, and mission to balance ecological preservation and recreation, making them a good match for partnering and exchanging ideas and resources. Nizhnednestrovsky National Park is located in the delta of the Dneistr river, and like Timucuan, lies on one of the last unspoiled wetlands. The Dneistr is a transboundary river which flows over 800 miles in six regions of Ukraine and Moldova. The wetlands of the Dneistr are protected by the Ramsar convention. From this convention, one of the long-term goals was to establish a national park in the region which would protect the unique flora and fauna. After ten years of an upward battle, the park was finally founded just three years ago.

Near Dniznednestrovsky National Park lies the ancient Belgorod-Dnestrovsky fortress from the 5th century B.C.E..On the territory of Timucuan, there is also a French fortress dating back to the 17th century (ancient for American standards!).
We were excited to facilitate the meeting of these two parks who decided to sign this first US-Ukrainian National Park partnership!
The theme of ecotourism has become an increasingly popular topic amongst the environmental community in the countries of the former Soviet Union. One of CSE's Ukrainian partners, the Ecological Center for Sustainable Development of Odessa, requested that we bring US experts on parks management and ecotourism to the Odessa region as consultants. During the week of August 10-18, we participated in an exchange to the Odessa region where we explored Dnizninestrovsky National Park, Tiligulsky Landscape Park, and the city of Odessa’s environmental community.
Although the concept of “ecotourism” is still in its nascent stage, we saw that there is great opportunity for future development of adventure tourism to this region of Ukraine. Most adventure travelers who come to Ukraine choose the Carpathian Mountains or Crimea. Many Ukrainian and foreign tourists take cruises on the Black Sea and during their Odessa stint are usually limited to seeing the city’s top sites. We think that there is great opportunity to get people out into the great Ukrainian land for a bike ride around the national park, or explore the Dneistr by canoe and touch the lilies for good luck if you are a maiden in search of your man. Oh the possibilities…

The real question at hand that we are seeing in all the countries of the FSU in regards to ecotourism, is how to create an infrastructure for trekking into the wild in a culture that is accustomed to “wild tourism” going where their spirit takes them. Read Russian literature and you’ll read the reverence for nature and exploration-it’s just part of their culture. Introducing hiking trails to streamline tourism is such a foreign concept, although one that we really pride ourselves on in the US—National Parks---“America’s Best Idea”. Just as in our past delegations we’ve grappled with alternative energy in the FSU and came to conclude that alternative sources of energy are dependent on the local resources—in Tajikistan small-scale hydropower far outweighs energy efficiency than solar or wind. The relationship between land and people of course is dependent on the history of the land and people. Creating national parks in order to streamline the human impact on America’s greatest natural landscapes was still people-oriented. In Ukraine and Russia the concept of a national park is still limited to protecting the land from people more than for people.

We’ll be grappling with similar questions in just a few weeks in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. Until then…

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crimea---The Black Sea

Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine…..

Such a beautiful, warm, country and nation—Ukraine.  After spending a little over a week working as the cultural liaison between our American and Ukrainian ecotourism delegations in the Odessa region (will write about that later), I embarked on every history buff’s and world traveler’s dream---the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.  It touched so many parts of me---the gorgeous warm beaches not quite like southern California’s coast, but close.  I realized that having grown up catching waves in the Pacific Ocean, I needed to learn how to amuse myself in a Sea—what do you do without waves? Once I got into it, it felt like paradise. You could swim and float without the crashing of the waves and enjoy the bath-like warm temperature and see through the clear blue waters. 

Then to visit the ancient town of Khersones—5th century BCE. Out of this world…Really…To stand on the cobble-stoned streets, and see the remnants of the Ancient Greek architecture, Ottoman mosques, and the renovated Byzantine Orthodox church---all overlooking the clear Black Sea.

Of course I was most intrigued by the town of Bakchisarai, and Chufut-Kale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%87ufut_Qale), where the fascinating Karaite Jews lived. There is of course debate about the origins of the Karaites.  To the Russians, they were Turks/Mongols who converted to Judaism and took on a non-Talmudic based, Jewish belief system.  During WWII, Hitler made the decision that since they weren’t ethnically Jewish they wouldn’t be murdered like the Jews, but just ostracized and given fewer privileges than others. Since they had settled in Crimea before the death of Jesus they were exempt from taking responsibility for his death like other Jews!

So my friend Tamara joined me for the journey to Crimea and after a 2-hour hike to this ancient village of Chufut-Kale, as the sun was setting, I dragged her along to the Karaite cemetery. How could we trek all this way to this ancient incredible slice of Jewish history, and not at least say Kaddish at the Karaite cemetery? Two Ukrainian young girls were also daring enough to walk through the cemetery at dusk, knowing that it would be at least an hours’ hike back down to civilization.  Take a look at this:  The gravestones are totally preserved-written in Hebrew.  The Ukrainian girls were getting scared, and of course I was running ahead, deep into the cemetery so that I could say a prayer.  Then I heard “devushka! devushka!”  The girls were screaming for me to return so that we could all leave this “creepy” cemetery.  The security guard had told us to take the trail “to the right” to get back, but we found two trails to the right! We took one which took us to beautiful views of the valley, with the orange sun shining on the ancient white-stoned wall that surrounded Chufut-Kale.  We were definitely going the wrong direction and soon we’d need flashlights. We returned the long way and luckily found some tourists from St. Petersburg who had a car. Well, we thought lucky….I think it probably took us twice as long to return by car due to the rocky roads.  It was an adventure.

When we took a trip to Crimea’s riveria—Yalta, we stopped at the cute little village of Balaklava on the way.  On the tour of the once closed nuclear submarine base, I noticed that we were probably the only non-ex-soviets on the tour.  This of course had been closed to foreigners until recently, and now it’s actually a museum.  I was surprised to see how many children were on the tour. And as I listened a little more closely, I overheard the parents (fathers) grabbing their children’s hands and pointing to the bombs and flags of the hammer and sickle, telling the stories of the Soviet past with pride.  If you were born in 2001, the Soviet Union is something that your grandparents tell stories about. Something long ago in the past….  It reminded me of that first day in Crimea just about a week prior when I jumped from stone to stone along the Black Sea in Sevastopol side by side with two little boys.  I overheard one little boy say to the other “do you know what our country used to be called?”.  The other little boy says, “SSSR”.  The other little boy says, “but now we are Ukraine and my papa tells me stories about how it once was. It was a totally different world, he says”.  “That’s what my papa says too". 
Enjoy some pictures..

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Siberia: The Next Costa Rica?

 The word “Siberia” typically conjures up visions of gulags and frozen tundra. But with its hot springs, waterfalls, white sand beaches, and breathtaking mountain ranges, the region is making a move to become the next great ecotourism destination.
In an effort to encourage low-impact travel to Siberia, our organization (www.centerforsafeenergy.org) brought a delegation of Russian national park rangers and environmental educators to visit the San Francisco Bay Area in February. The group met with California park officials, various NGOs, and ecotourism leaders to discuss best practices of sustainable travel. Devising an ecotourism strategy is an increasingly crucial issue within the Buryatia region of Siberia as Lake Baikal attracts more visitors, and developers, each year.
Lake Baikal is a place of superlatives: It is the largest, oldest, deepest, cleanest, and clearest lake in the world, and home to the planet’s only freshwater seals. It is revered by the indigenous Buryats as sacred, and referred to throughout the country as the “Pearl of Siberia.” It holds one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, and supports 2,500 species of flora and fauna, 85 percent of which are endemic.
But although the lake is remarkably pure, it is under constant threat. A large paper mill on its banks is discharging toxic chemicals into the water, sparking a localized “dead zone” where marine life cannot survive. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had agreed to shut down the mill in 2009, but then, ignoring the potential for ecotourism in the region, he reversed himself in January 2010 and reopened the mill, arguing that it is the only source of regional economic development. The re-opening drew criticism from multiple environmental groups, including a local partner of Earth Island Institute, Baikal Wave whose office was subsequently raided by local police. Local and international NGOs are nonetheless keeping the pressure on Putin, calling on UNESCO to classify this World Heritage Site as endangered.
Meanwhile, opportunities abound for those who wish to support the emergence of ecotourism in the region, from trekking the Great Baikal Trail to visiting sacred sites to enjoying the local hot springs, parks, and beaches – all of which are helping to create a new vision of Siberia.