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Back to the future in the land of Genghis Khan.

If there is one certainty in this last decade of the 20th century, it is uncertainty. Change is the order of the day in the lives of individuals and nations. That is especially so in matters of natural-resource protection and management, given the growing concern about preserving biodiversity and crafting new forms of sustainable forestry.

In the United States, however, we seem locked into present conceptions of such fundamental matters as property fights, the public trust doctrine, and land-use planning systems; we creep timidly into the "new world order" only as events elsewhere force us to change. We are masters at incrementalism, preferring, as I once described it, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than to ask tough questions about the state of our nation and spaceship Earth.

A colleague of mine has suggested that the problem is one of perspective. We can see ourselves and our environment only from the perspective of another environment. Travel, for one example, can help us see our own home with new eyes. Likewise, we can understand the present only from the vantage of history, or the future.

I suggest, therefore, that we might learn some important lessons if we could somehow escape the present and familiar places. As a kid, one of my favorite books was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The idea of taking modern ideas and a Colt revolver back to medieval England fascinated me. What fun it must have been to invent all those modern gadgets back in the past. That youthful fantasy was revived for me by the Back-to-the-Future movie trilogy starring Michael J. Fox, especially the third episode when he goes back to the Old West.

Last summer I took the trip myself! I spent six weeks in the Republic of Buryaria, the homeland of Genghis Khan and, as many anthropologists believe, the ancient homeland of North American Indians. My time machine was a 10-hour flight on Aeroflot from Moscow to Irkutsk, which was as harrowing as Michael J. Fox's ride on the steam train that pulled his time-car back to the future in the third episode. Little did I imagine that only a few weeks after my return, the Soviet Union would disappear.

One of my hosts in Siberia was Oleg Popov, who as deputy minister of forestry is Buryatia's highest-ranking professional forester. Oleg is a bright, affable man about my age (old enough to remember World War II) who loves his job and the land where he lives. Like most foresters in the world, he works and plays hard. He enjoys the fellowship of foresters, good food, and good vodka. We got along famously.

The discussions with him and his staff described in this article include a composite of conversations with other officials in Russia. I expect that Oleg would be comfortable with this extension of his remarks and those of his staff.

Oleg Popov is the Buryat Republic's equivalent of our chief of the U.S. Forest Service and the directors of the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management combined. Popov, and his counterpart in the neighboring Siberian oblast (state) of Irkutsk, are responsible for an area of land about the size of the U.S. National Forest System. The approximately 200 million acres are divided into several hundred forestry districts and include national parks and wilderness areas, a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, and dozens of smaller nature reserves and wildlife refuges (some a century old).

This Siberian forest is truly a Land of Many Uses, including extensive timber harvesting and livestock grazing; some of the richest mineral deposits and oil, gas, and coal fields on earth; a growing tourist industry; spectacular wilderness; and the watershed of a legendary lake that holds more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. This world-renowned Lake Baikal region contains thousands of rare and endangered plants and animals, most of which occur nowhere else on earth.

Oleg Popov's management problems are equally immense.

Every year several million acres of his forest burn from human-caused fires, and much of the region is experiencing serious forest decline from air pollution, insects, and disease. There is severe overgrazing, widespread game poaching, water pollution from unregulated paper mills and destructive logging and mining practices, and, as he calls them, "wild tourists" starting fires, dumping garbage, and driving off-road vehicles (ORVs) everywhere. (For Russians in Siberia, any motorized vehicles-cars, trucks, minivans--are "ORVs." Most are private or "company" vehicles.)

Popov is short of personnel, money, equipment, and just about everything else. He didn't have an increment borer until I gave him mine. His maps are inadequate, and most of the roads in the republic are barely passable.

A close analog to Oleg Popov's situation would be that of Gifford Pinchot in 1905 when Congress transferred the Forest Reserves to his little Bureau of Forestry, but with one dramatic difference: All of the land in Buryatia is public, and Popov is supposed to manage damn near every acre outside a few cities like Ulan Ude, the capital ! He has the scientific knowledge, technical skill, and commitment to manage the area well, but he doesn't have the barest essentials in terms of personnel, equipment, and money. Until recently he was subject to conflicting orders from Moscow and the local soviet, filtered through a ponderous bureaucracy dominated by the Communist Party.

On top of all that, thousands of people live on these "public" lands, grazing "public" livestock and working for the "public" timber industry, which is under the control of a different ministry. The only thing Oleg doesn't have to worry about is a Siberian Sierra Club. But that too may be changing. The Sierra Club's one-time chief, David Brower, was with us during part of the expedition.

To what do Oleg Popov and his Siberian forest have to do with a quest for a new perspective on natural-resource management in the United States? As Paul Harvey would say, here's "the rest of the story."

Months before my visit, the faraway Republic of Buryaria was feeling the impact of perestroika. From the party leaders in charge to the peasants in the hinterland, the notion of private land ownership was firing imaginations. Long before the central government collapsed last August, orders were coming down to begin the process of privatization. As the literal "czar" of most public land in Buryatia, forester Oleg Popov was entering a new world he never before imagined.

During my brief visit, Oleg and his staff bombarded me with questions as to how we manage public and private land in the United States. David Brower and other environmentalists had already devised new protective measures for the Lake Baikal watershed and were advocating substantial enlargement of the national park system and establishment of a new preservation-oriented agency to administer the parks.

The park and wilderness ideas were not new to Popov and his colleagues. The Russian czars had established such reserves on Lake Baikal even before the creation of Yellowstone. But carving more park preserves out of his "national forest" and creating a new agency to administer them is no more popular with him than it was with Gilford Pinchot.

But now Popov is facing an even greater challenge and threat. To put it in our context, the Sagebrush Rebels are winning the day. Yeltsin ordered an acceleration of the privatization process. The effect on Popov and his staff has been to force them to ask questions which they had not imagined a few years ago. They were being pushed to move rapidly from the status quo of the present into an uncertain future and to discard overnight the tenets and assumptions of the past several centuries. I'm sure it is both scary and exhilarating. It surely freed them up to ask questions that no one would have dared ask before glasnost,

The questions ranged from the practical to the philosophical. How do you survey land, mark boundaries, and transfer ownership? What's a warranty deed? Where and how should it be recorded? Feeling like Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, I invented lawyers, surveyors, county and town clerks, acid-free deed record books, and survey systems. They laughed at our Jeffersonian township grid survey system, which ignored the natural landscape, and much preferred the older, landscape-sensitive New England metes and bounds survey method.

The more penetrating questions dealt with values and rights. How do Americans assign value to land? How do we value old-growth forests and the watershed functions of land? Prime softs? Rare plants and animals? Historic places? Scenery? Clean water and air? I explained markets and invented appraisers and realestate agents. I didn't get very far with discount rates and why we consider well-managed land to be worth less in the future than it is at present. I refused to invent economists ! The questions got tougher. "When a person owns private property, what do they really own?" they asked. Do they have the right to sell the land, subdivide it into smaller parcels, change the use, prevent others from walking or hunting on it? Can they borrow money on it? Can they rent it? Can their children inherit it?

After struggling to explain the almost unlimited rights of American fee-simple ownership, I realized how much I had forgotten about the evolution of land ownership and tenure and how I had taken for granted the deep roots of English common law.

I truly perplexed my Siberian colleagues. If, they asked, you grant all these fights to private owners, how do you protect the interests of society and future generations? How do you prevent the owner from injuring the wider community because of poor management? Is it permissible for an owner to use land in a way that causes problems like we now have with fire, erosion, overgrazing, pollution, and inappropriate logging and development?

I tried hard to explain that private ownership should give people pride in their land so that they treat it with respect. My listeners' skepticism at that notion forced me to invent a court system, laws of equity, doctrines of nuisance and trespass, zoning and land-use planning, clean water and air acts, forest-practice and pesticide-control laws. To my surprise, I even invented the Cooperative Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service.

At that point I had to explain how a property-tax system is necessary to pay for all this government intervention into the wonderful free-market system. I explained why the state should retain eminent-domain powers in case some of the new private land is needed later for public purposes, and how in the United States such takings require compensation for the owner.

Finally, just to be safe, I suggested that they keep large areas in public ownership in case the planning, regulatory, and cooperative incentive systems I had "invented" didn't control all the evils of private property fights. That led to a discussion of English common law, the public-trust doctrine, and management of public land for multiple use and sustained yield, modified by the RPA, NFMA, ESA, FLPMA, and NEPA.

At that point we seemed to be back on familiar ground--only the initials and acronyms of their laws and ours seem to differ. Thoughts turned to caviar and vodka, and we adjourned.

I don't know what Oleg Popov and his colleagues will decide about how to implement a system of private property in Russia, but they certainly asked all the right questions-ones we need to re-ask back here in the future.

Ironically, they have an advantage over us in that this is the first time they have faced the prospect of a mixed public/private system. For thousands of years, under the czars, the Orthodox Church, and communist dictators, they knew only serfdom in a warped feudal system of land tenure. The glorious promises of the communist Soviet Union proved to be a 70-year political and economic cul-de-sac. In that purely commodity-based system, land, air, and water resources were ravaged. But now officials can begin with a clean slate, at least in a legal, socio-economic sense if not in terms of the condition of the natural environment.

My fear is that they will not learn from our mistakes. In their reaction to the excesses of our fee-simple property-rights system and our clumsy attempts to protect the public interest through police power, economic intervention, and public land reservations, I expect they will opt for a model that again resembles feudalism. Rather than devising a fresh, new model of public/private cooperation that builds on the obvious virtues of a strong private-property system, I expect they will adopt some form of leases by which land holders have limited rights to use, convey, and exclude land as they see fit.

The system will likely retain the worst bureaucratic and inflexible features of the old soviet centralized system. Residual public lands may fare better than in the past as some decentralization and consolidation of old commodity-based ministries takes place. Only time will tell. It will surely be an experiment worth watching carefully.

Back here in the future, I wonder if we will have the courage to ask the right questions as we also are forced to forge new land-use and resource-management systems which are truly sustainable and environmentally sound.

I wonder.
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Title Annotation:forest management in Siberia
Author:Reidel, Carl
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Siberia on the brink.
Next Article:Colorado brown.

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