2005 Trip Report: Altai, A-Z!

Trip Report – Republic of Altai and Altai Krai

In July 2005, I traveled to the Altai Region with Don and Norm, both representing a foundation that has been supporting Altai conservation work since the late 1990s. For them, the goals of the trip included: • Gaining a better (and up-to-date) understanding of a key region supported by their foundation since the late 1990s; • Assessing the relative “return on investment” that their grants have achieved; • Getting to know the local NGOs at work on the “front line;” and • Seeing the broad variety of habitats and ecosystems that are located in the Altai region, especially the entire Katun River watershed and the Ukok Plateau. For me, in many ways my goals mirrored theirs, but I had additional goals of: • Assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of local grassroots groups, with an eye on ensuring that we are supporting the most well-positioned and effective organizations; • Getting to know the funders better, both in terms of philosophy and personality, while hoping to impress upon them the importance of their support in the entire Greater Altai region; • Encouraging said foundation to get the word out among other funders and foundations about the treasure that is the Greater Altai;

Over the course of the trip we visited with as many of these groups as possible, while covering over 2500km of beautiful Altai landscape. This report will touch on meeting highlights, information about the state of specific protected areas, regional policy and politics, and other relevant subjects.

Part 1: Altai Krai During this portion of the trip, Don, Norm, and I traveled with Elena Repetunova (Ecoclub, Tigireksky Zapovednik, and GGF representative) and Ilya Smelyansky (SibEcoCenter foothills conservation project leader). Since playing a leading role in creating the Tigireksky Zapovednik (~40K hectares ) lo these many years ago, Ecoclub has been focusing its efforts in 3 specific arenas: 1) monitoring the ongoing status of the zapovednik itself, ensuring that its boundaries (addt’l ~26K hectares) are neither changed nor violated, 2) attempting to enlarge the zapovednik or its buffer zone to include other nearby key landscape, 3) educating the local population about the benefits and importance of the zapovednik. Ecoclub, along with other regional groups (including the Fund), has been attempting to incorporate the largely wild and uninhabited bordering lands in the Charyshky raion (county) into the zapovednik. GIS mapping, basic science, and monitoring projects are all ongoing – many groups here are optimistic that the Charyshsky lands will be incorporated, but it is a long slow process requiring many approvals, much bureaucracy, and cultivating relationships with government officials at many levels. In terms of education, Ecoclub, in partnership with the zapovednik’s administration has set up 2 visit-centers, both of which we visited during this portion of our trip. Very basic one-room visitor centers situated in schools, these centers seems to serve as points of pride in the communities of Zmeinogorsk and Krasnoshchekovo. The director of the Krasnoshchekovo visit-center, Svetlana Kuznetsova, is becoming increasing active on other environmental issues as well, including the Murzinka gold mine and defending the Chinytinsky zakaznik (more later about both of these). In August, Svetlana will be traveling to the US on an Open World exchange.

SibEcoCenter and the Steppe Foothills Preservation Project

We met up with Ilya Smelyansky near Lake Kolyvanskoye, where he joined us for a 4-hour whirlwind tour of many of the intact steppe foothills that he and his colleagues have been working hard to survey, inventory, and ultimately, protect from further development or human encroachment. Many of these areas are craggy, low peaks that overlook grass, wheat, and buckwheat fields. All of this land serves as vital habitat to rare or infrequent raptors (golden eagle, steppe eagle, steppe owls, an assortment of bats, etc.), which have, over the centuries, adapted to depend on agricultural lands for prey. [Apparently, the Orenburg zapovednik, a similar landscape, saw a total loss (or outward emigration) of all raptor species due to the zapovednik’s ban on agriculture.]

We had a series of back-and-forth discussions about the complex concept of land ownership in Russia. Land can, theoretically, be owned by the federal government (Forest Fund, federal-level protected areas, etc.), the province or “state” government (Altai Krai), the raion (county-equivalent), the municipality, or an individual land holder. Unfortunately, these delineations are frequently multi-layered (especially, in the case of mineral resources contained in land), conflicting, in flux due to changing laws, or simply not clear. In 2006, it is expected that some of these issues will be resolved when the new Land Code comes into effect. In addition, the Forestry Code is also currently under revision, and it is anticipated that the implementation of that legislation will also change the situation on the ground (as it were).

Murzinka Mining Project

Locals Irina Rybnikova and Svetlana Kuznetsova told us that placer mining has been ongoing here since 1737, when Demydov began works under Katharine the Great. Initial mining took place on the north side of the main road and gradually switched over to deposits on the south side of the road. Mining continued on/off over the next two hundred years. In 1937, the NKVD (KGB predecessor) assumed control over the mine and began using mercury to further strip the gold from the ore. In 1991, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, a Moscow investor and the Burlingas family both seem to have become involved. While they initially used mercury, they soon switched over to cyanide heap leaching, seemingly without undergoing any re-permitting or known environmental impact assessment process. Today, the site employs locals for basic labor, but involvement in the heap leaching process is limited to a few imported staff. There’s an onsite lab and the cyanide is brought in from Biysk. No real effort seems to be made to limit access to the site—fencing is non-existent, other than a thin single wire around the leach heaps. Old heaps are just left to sit—as far as the locals know, no reclamation is practiced. The pits are lined with a membrane of indeterminate thickness and theoretically have a drainage system. Average output of late equals 1.5 g/ton, and 1500 tons of gold have been reclaimed since 1991, from 200 million tons of material. (!!!!) Locals have been trying to get information, without much success. They have not seen any project documentation, despite a letter writing campaign to various responsible parties. They’ve gotten a few “declarations,” and a few “everything is just fine” letters, but that’s about it. The Institute of Ecological Water Problems, in Barnaul, was hired to do testing, but the locals don’t have confidence that the testing was independent. Water tests came back clear. No major accidents yet, but containers of cyanide left in the open air are perceived as hazardous, claims of increased cancer rates (also being attributed to Semipalatinsk (nuke site in nearby Kazakhstan)), and mining-related livestock deaths are also asserted. The company is supposedly making payments to the village administration, but amounts and purposes are not known. There are rumors of plans to shift operations back to other side of road. There are NO groups in either the Krai or the Republic that broadly monitor mining, mining impacts, or resource extraction companies.

Part 2: Republic of Altai

During this portion of the trip, we traveled with Misha Shishin, Director of the Fund for 21st Century Altai, and Chagat Almashev, Director of the Gorno-Altaisk-based Fund for Sustainable Development of Altai. Chagat parted ways with us not long after Ukok, but played a vital role in securing permission for the entire group to enter the Ukok Plateau, as well as pass through all military checkpoints in the entire Republic of Altai. Chemal and the Katun Dam – “Defense of Tengri” (GGF, Altai Project, PE)

In Chemal, we overnighted at the home and guest house of Lyudmila Solovyova. Lyudmila is the Director of Zashchita Tengri, a one-woman war zone, supported by Irina, her assistant. Lyudmila provides much of the energy and fury behind the legal campaign against the Katun Dam project. While Lyudmila currently has 14 active court cases against the Katun Dam project developers (and involved government agencies), of primary importance are the cases disputing the “Justification for Investment” (against the project developers) and the non-existent emergency services planning (against the Ministry for Emergency Situations). Both of these cases are currently undergoing delays due to procedural issues, the former partly hinging on completion of the Public Environmental Expertiza (led by SibEcoCenter). Here in Chemal, we stopped only briefly on our way to points further south in the Republic. On our way back from Ust-Koksa, however, we again returned to Chemal.

During that second stopover, we visited a few other places in the Chemal valley. We visited the current proposed site of the Katun Dam, just a few kilometers north of the village of Elanda, about 20 km upriver from Chemal. Among the many issues with project, the project developers are waffling publicly and attempting to avoid dialog about whether or not 3 villages on the south side of the river upstream of the dam will be cut off entirely or perhaps inundated should the dam be built. Also, there is continuing concern that the proposed 50-meter dam is simply a front for building the larger (and originally proposed) 180 meter dam, using the excuse that, “Oh, my, it was a miscalculation that the 50m dam would provide enough energy, but since we’ve already built it, it is simple enough to build it a little (3 times) higher!”

Finally, we visited the site of the Fund’s planned Alternative Energy Center. Here, ground has officially been broken! A small storage shed has been built, the site has been connected to the Chemal electrical grid, a small solar array is in operation, and an excellent well has been drilled. In August, a US partner organization will arrive with a group of volunteers from “Builders Without Borders” to begin construction of the straw-bale architecture barn. Straw-bale architecture is a very new concept in Siberia, and local groups have been unable, as of yet, to secure permission to use that technology for housing structures. The Fund has been working with the Chemal raion administration to design and secure funding for the installation of heat pump technology in the Chemal school building. Plans have been completed, and currently the project is applying for its legislated share of federal funding (30% of project cost). This heat pump project is a poster child for funding other alternative energy projects in the Republic—once local governments see that significant federal funding can be obtained to support upgrading energy infrastructure (owned locally), it is hoped that the floodgates of alternative energy technology will be opened and that the Fund will be perfectly positioned to support that wave of interest!

Finally, for the Chemal raion, the Fund and Zashchita Tengri are working in cooperation with the local administration to create a Chemal Nature Park that follows exactly the borders of the raion. This would give all involved better ability to control the development of tourism in the region, as well as enforce basic nature conservation practices. The justification paperwork is complete, currently they are working on GIS mapping and walking the application through various government agencies. There is definitely support from the Chemal administration. An obvious side benefit is that nature park status would make it more difficult to justify the proposed Katun Dam.

Uch-Enmek Nature Park, Tengri

Just before reaching the district center of Ongudai, in the Ongudai Raion, we stopped in the Karakol Valley (61K hectares), where Danil Mamyev and his organization, Tengri School of Spiritual Ecology, has played a leading role in creating the Uch-Enmek Nature Park (810 hectares are “strictly protected), an accomplishment that went out of its way to encourage community participation during all stages of the planning and implementation process. The valley contains a large number of kurgans, stellae, (both Pazyrykskaya Culture ) and other sacred monuments, whose significance is not totally understood, but whose cultural importance to the local community is paramount. Through thorough landscape and ecosystem planning, the Park is completing plans for sustainable resource use (including maral deer farming, livestock, and tourism) that it hopes will carry the entire community forward into a balanced future. They are in the final stages of completing the formal GIS mapping and landscape planning for the region—this documentation will be submitted to relevant Republic and federal agencies for final approval.

Chui-Oozy Nature-Economic Park

Traveling along the Katun River, the landscape around us began to shift away from lush alpine mountains to nearly bare mountains towering over the Katun floodplain, bordered along the foot by ancient silt deposits. Along the way, where the Chuya River flows in to the Katun, we hung a left and began driving up the Chuya valley. It seems that during the last ice age, the Chuisky Steppe (home of Kosh-Agach and even further upstream) was an enormous glacial lake dammed at one end by debris and silt, and that at some point that dam burst, resulting in an enormous tidal wave of silt, which was then deposited for hundreds of kilometers downstream. Not far from the confluence of the Chuya and the Katun Rivers, the Chui-Oozy Nature-Economic Park is located in a valley surrounded on all sides by bare mountains over which storm fronts seem to pass daily. For all practical purposes, the fulcrum of the Park is a rest stop, complete with restaurant, banya, and small guesthouse. There is nothing else for miles and miles in any direction. The Park and the rest stop are operated by the family of Ruslana Toptygina, an Altaian young woman. This Park is not a traditional regional-level nature park, rather it was created using the Republic’s agricultural land code and allows for for-profit uses of the land. In addition to the rest stop facilities, Ruslana’s staff patrol and 810 hectares that the park encompasses, inventory and monitor wild flora and fauna, and run a sizeable farm (3000+ sheep/goats, 60 cattle, pigs, garden). Ruslana hopes to expand the borders of the park as resources, government, and local support allows. Nearby Shavlinsky zakaznik is snow leopard and Argali sheep habitat and would benefit from the additional protection of nature park status. Finally, there is a large collection of Stone- and Bronze-age petroglyphs clustered nearby, and the Park, with support from WWF (?) has built a guard post/visitor center and gazebo and has a staff person there during daylight hours to ensure that the petroglyphs are not damaged. Kosh-Agach

We did not stop for over long in Kosh-Agach, essentially only long enough to switch vehicles/drivers, acquire our designated guide, Maya, and meet quickly with the Ukok Nature Park administration in the person of Sergey Ochurdyapov. Kosh-Agach is a dusty town, comprised of about 49% Altaians, 49% Kazakhs, and maybe 2% ethnic Russians. Tensions between the Altaians and Kazakhs seems to run a bit high, especially when it comes to politics. Much of the Kosh-Agach administration is run by Kazakhs, who are nonetheless perceived as outsiders by the Altaians and Russians, despite the fact that the Kazakhs settled in the region centuries ago. This town definitely gives off the sense of, “You’re not in Russia anymore….” The Kuraisky steppe (between Chui-Oozy and the Chuisky steppe) and the Chuisky steppe are both heavily overgrazed. Kosh-Agach gets an average of 326 (!) days per year of sunshine, and that, combined with heavy grazing and very little precipitation means that the surrounding steppe is in poor condition. Adding to the problem, local livestock, especially cattle, do not have good bloodline management, resulting in low milk and meat production. An additional problem is that the closest meat-packing facility is in Biisk (Altai Krai, 2days drive) and there is inadequate electricity for even primary dairy processing.

Ukok Nature Park, Ukok Plateau

Essentially we drove 200 kilometers roundtrip, spending more than 24 hours covering this short distance, just to give an idea of how bad the “road” was, in parts. We overnighted at Lake Tarkhatinskoye on the first and third nights, located about 25 km outside of the main pass into the Ukok Plateau. On the second night, we camped in the heart of the Plateau, about 1 hour beyond the first military checkpoint on the plateau itself. During the Soviet years, enormous herds of livestock were driven across the plateau from Mongolia (with its broad rich grasslands) to Kazakhstan (with its enormous meat-packing plant). The drives had a tremendous impact on the surrounding lands, and now, 15 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the landscape is considered to have only recovered to 10-15% of its former glory. From Russia, there are essentially only two entrances to the Ukok Plateau, one through the pass at Teply Klyuch (northeast corner) and one via Alakhinskoye Lake (northwest corner). All other access, including access via China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, is very mountainous, and there are no actual roads. Essentially, if one can control those two access points, one can control access to the entire park. The Park administration would like to build visitor centers/checkpoints at both locations as well as strengthening cooperation with the Federal Border Guard, which has about 5 military checkpoints, through which all visitors must pass and furnish the necessary paperwork.

There are no permanent human settlements on the Plateau itself, although there are 52 winter pasture stations for shepherds and their livestock. During our time on Ukok, we saw NOTHING larger than marmots and no large birds. The three Americans were in continual wonderment about this, while our accompanying hosts were convinced that all the larger fauna was at higher summer pastures and habitats. How can such a vast space have so little life in it at the height of summer? On our way back out of the Ukok, our vehicle got stuck up to all four axles in mud, and Chagat and I set off on foot back to the nearest military checkpoint for help.

Serendipitously, while talking to folks at the checkpoint, we learned that a delegation of 15 Chinese visitors arrived, none of whom spoke Russian (meaning no diplomats), to “look at the road through the Ukok Plateau.” This news is ominous, in that it indicates renewed interest and redoubled efforts on the part of the Chinese to push this option, something they are very keen to do on their end. Most Russians, including government officials, know that the Republic of Altai has not much to gain from this project, as it would result in a flood of Chinese across the border, including their cheap goods, both of which increase competition for jobs and products on the local market. Our partners hypothesize that if the Ukok Road option moves forward, that this points to highly-placed federal and Republic government officials having received “additional incentives” from the Chinese to push the road option through. Mind you, the Ukok Plateau is all about permafrost, is basically one enormous cultural/historic/ archaeological monument, not to mention the last remaining high-elevation steppe grassland remaining in the entire Greater Altai. The road is a Bad Idea.

Last thought: At Tyoply Klyuch, in addition to it being a local attraction (“warm” spring (18 degrees Celsius—not that warm!) and high concentration of natural radon) as a very rustic spa, there is also an ore processing facility for molybdenum and tungsten. Very economically inefficient, apparently completely unmonitored, Misha was pretty sure that all of its profits are just disappearing into someone’s pocket. Local employees complain of not having been paid for months.

Ust-Koksa and the Koksinsky Raion

After overnighting again in Chui-Oozy, we wended our way the long way around via Ust-Kan to Ust-Koksa. I say the long way around, because if one were to travel on horseback from Chui-Oozy, you could cut about 300 kilometers off a 450 kilometer trip. Ust-Koksa is where the Koksa River flows into the Katun River. It is another lovely alpine valley, similar to the Chemal Valley in geomorphology and flora and fauna, but significantly lower in population. It is the closest settlement point to Katunsky Zapovednik and is home to a large population of hunters, livestock farmers, and beekeepers. There’s also a fair amount of wheat and haygrass farming. We met with Alexander Zatyeev, 11-year director of the Katunsky Zapovednik. He’s worked in the region for his entire career. In speaking with both the Bailagasovs and Misha Shishin, it is clear that there are some issues with the way he runs the zapovednik, but no one came right out to say anything other than that he has trouble keeping on truly talented and committed staff. The zapovednik is active and collaborates with a number of international programs, and is another part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site here in Altai (along with the Altaisky zapovednik and the Ukok Plateau). Katunsky zapovednik will be participating in an important study of the impact of climate change on mountainous regions, a project that will commence in 2006.

One of the key regions for visiting the Ust-Koksa valley is to get a better understanding of the option for developing mini-hydro dams here. I wasn’t able to get all the details of total power production, etc., b/c it’s hard to take notes while interpreting, but basically, if the Raion administration is able to fund 9 proposed minihydro projects across the Ust-Koksa raion, they will be able to meet ALL of the energy needs, year-round, for the entire raion PLUS some of the surrounding regions. That is, become a net EXPORTER of energy, generated on local-owned and operated infrastructure. A good thing. Again, the 30% federal funding option comes into play here. Misha and I talked about looking at international development bank funding as a possibility as well (like the World Bank).


After Ust-Koksa, we hauled ourselves back home again, via the aforementioned last overnight in Chemal. All agreed that the trip had been most useful. We had a number of animated and useful discussions on land use policy, immigration, family planning, strict conservation versus socio-economic development, and other subjects. I think the funders achieved all of their goals on this trip and left the country with a much finer understanding of the complexity of conservation work in Russia. We, in partnership with Susan, Matt, and Elena (for GGF) were able to put together an itinerary that visited as many partners as possible, while still seeing a broad array of the natural riches that Altai has to offer.