Being Here: Saving Russia's Natural Heritage

A conversation with Margaret Williams goes in fits and starts. While trying to talk, she is ceaselessly interrupted by her colleagues at Moscow's Biodiversity Conservation Center.

Someone wants to borrow her computer cord, someone needs to get an important figure, someone else is on the phone -- the cramped quarters are filled with the free-wheeling clatter of people hard at work. Williams likes it this way.

"You shouldn't be writing this article about me," said Williams, who is 28. "These people and the work we're doing are a lot more important."

Williams' selflessness is understandable. As the public relations head of the center and the editor of its newsletter, Williams, with her co-workers, is trying to save some pretty big pieces of the world: Russia's vast network of nature reserves, the zapovedniki.

Created in the 1900s and taking in more than four percent of Russia's territory, zapovedniki are huge tracts of land similar to America's national parks. But unlike their American counterparts, the public use of zapovedniki is discouraged. Grazing, hiking and even berry-picking are illegal. Williams said the reserve's approach towards conservation is also unique, emphasizing ecosystems instead of geography.

But as with everything in post-perestroika Russia's public sector, funding for zapovedniki is scarce. Budget cuts have left staff poorly equipped and trained, Williams said.

"Real basic things are neglected," she said. "In a lot of ways, such as research, the Russians are far ahead of the Americans. But scientists are spending more time cutting hay and working in potato gardens than working in the zapovedniki. They have to, to survive."

Williams, of Pepperell, Massachusetts, first got interested in Russia's nature reserves while getting her Master's degree in environmental studies from Yale University. A former forest ranger at America's Glacier and Arcadia national parks with a degree in American History and knowledge of Russian from her days as an undergraduate at Smith College, Williams felt the former Soviet Union was the best place to combine her varied skills.

"This seemed like a pretty important place to establish diplomatic ties," she said. "There was so much happening here. It was pretty inspiring."

While completing her Master's in 1993, she applied for, and won, a fellowship to work on Russia's environmental problems. After tours in Magadan and Kolya, establishing pacts on wildlife reserves between Russia, the U.S. and Finland, Williams came to Moscow. A Yale classmate had started the center and Williams heard it was at the vanguard of Russia's conservation movement.

At the center, Williams said she is consistently impressed and inspired by her coworkers' energy and tirelessness. She points out that many of her peers work other jobs while volunteering. She has been less inspired with the government's attitudes towards the reserves and the Russian public's lack of knowledge about the zapovedniki.

"A lot of Russians feel these parks are a big pain because they are not allowed to use them," she said. "People don't know enough about them and don't see how they can be beneficial in the future."