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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Komi Set for Heritage Site

When enumerating the globe's most prestigious and breathtaking natural wonders, the Komi Forest does not exactly jump to the top of the list.

But all connotations of oil-soaked tundra aside, a 4 million hectare stretch of forest preserve has been targeted by the Russian government as a World Heritage natural site -- the first to be nominated since Russia signed UNESCO's World Heritage Convention in 1988.

"It was a surprise for some people when Russia named the Komi Forest first," said Jim Thorsell of the World Conservation Union, adding that Russia has many other more obvious candidates, among them Lake Baikal and the Kamchatka peninsula. Thorsell suggested the forest's endangered status may have pushed Environment Ministry officials to name Komi ahead of these other locations.

But according to Alexei Blagovidov, who was the deputy director of Komi's Pechora-Ilychsky Biosphere State Reserve before joining the Environment Ministry last year, the nomination has nothing to do with the threat of frequent oil spills, but was based on merit alone.

"Komi is the last stretch of taiga forest in all of Europe that is practically untouched by man," said Blagovidov, adding that it also contains Yugo Dva, which at nearly 2 million hectares, is one of the biggest national parks in Russia.

While the region may be better known for last September's oil spill affecting 70 hectares of virgin forest, Komi is also home to two national parks, which hold a treasure trove of taiga biodiversity including brown bear, sable, elk and over 200 bird species.

Thorsell is currently in the Komi region to evaluate whether it has the right stuff to join the list of 97 other World Heritage natural sites -- an impressive list of natural wonders that includes Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania, America's Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

Russia, which already has a number of cultural heritage sites -- among them Red Square and Kizhi Island -- does not stand to gain much financially from joining the equivalent of a Nobel Prize list of natural parks. But limited money is available through the $2.5 million World Heritage Fund for those countries unable to fund conservation efforts.

"We get a lot of bad news in Russia on the conservation scene," said Thorsell. "But finally we have good news."