A Conversation with Don Weeden, Executive Director of the Weeden Foundation

How did you first learn about The Altai Project?

I inherited The Altai Project when I came on as Executive Director of the Weeden Foundation 12 years ago. I knew virtually nothing about Altai at that time. Upon educating myself, I was impressed with the potential for landscape-scale conservation in Altai and the availability of US-based and local partners. Since then, the Weeden Foundation’s Altai Program has steadily grown and The Altai Project has remained a steady grantee.

The Foundation President, Norm Weeden and I traveled to Altai with Director, Jennifer Castner in 2005 and we were both very taken with her leadership and collaborative efforts. Jennifer is clearly one of Altai’s strongest champions, and her knowledge, language skills, and professional network have allowed The Altai Project to develop extremely effective partnerships with local activist organizations. It is a great example of how much a small committed organization can accomplish in a particular geographical area.

 What inspires you about Altai?

Altai is one of the last great iconic landscapes left on the planet. Its scenery is breathtaking, akin perhaps to Western Montana 120 years ago. Approximately a quarter of the Republic is strictly protected as wildlife habitat, partly the result of continuing efforts to protect the most intact lands. Protected areas and their buffer lands support a population of snow leopards. Conservation science tells us that maintaining predator populations is vital to ecosystem balance. Altai is also rich in cultural traditions that include reverence for wildlife.

What do you see as the greatest reason we should work to protect places like Altai? 

Places that contain large conservation areas are vital to protecting global bio-diversity but are becoming increasingly rare. Altai has the advantages of low population density, strong traditions of reverence for the landscape, and remoteness. However in today’s globalized world no place is remote enough, and outside threats to Altai are increasing. We need to protect these last remaining grand landscapes from industrialization. Local groups working in collaboration with groups such as The Altai Project have been extremely effective in stopping big dam, mining, road development and energy infrastructure threats. There has also been considerable progress in addressing the important problem of wildlife poaching.

 How can we help protect and conserve our land, wildlife, and cultures?

My advice is to pick an area of high biodiversity and traditional culture such as Altai, and support groups that are working to protect their attributes. The annual financial need for conservation groups in Altai is about $200,000. Small contributions can make a great deal of difference. I like to tell fellow foundations that working in areas like Altai provide a lot of “bang for the buck” because of the lower costs and tremendous volunteerism of the NGO sector.

 Share a unique travel experience with us.

Traveling with Jennifer on the Ukok Plateau (Nature Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site) in southern Altai, we were in a “Uazik,” a high clearance Hummer-like vehicle when we got bogged down to our axles. I wouldn’t have thought the Uazik was capable of getting stuck but then I didn’t know Ukok, famous for its haunting, tundra-dominated landscape, and lack of roads. We tried for several hours to prop up the vehicle’s chassis with rocks. We then opted for the last resort of walking over to an army border post five miles away and asking for help. An army captain named Sergei soon arrived, jumping down from his huge vehicle 10 feet off the ground – a spitting image of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I asked whether we could rent his truck for the next couple of days but he ignored me. We were a lot more careful from then on, sending out scouting parties when the route was questionable (which was nearly always). The Ukok Plateau is a magnificent high landscape that is currently threatened by a proposed gas pipeline running from Russia into China.