National Geographic : 2002 Jun
A carefreeswingfrom a birch tree belies the concerns many Rus sians like Lena Petrova express for theirenvi ronment'sfuture. Two years ago, in a cost cutting move strongly criticizedby conserva tion activists,Presi dent VladimirPutin abolishedRussia's na tional environmental protectionandforestry agencies. percent decline in some migratory bird populations in fragmented forest areas, probably because of habitat disturbance. Big mammals also have suffered as their habitat has been whittled away. In the Swan Hills region of central Alberta the population of grizzly bears has dropped from about 400 to 80 in the past half century.* Woodland caribou, which need large tracts of forest and eat lichens found in older stands, are in decline, with some herds on the verge of disappearing. Smack in the middle of what some call Alberta's "fragmentation fron tier" is Dave Donahue, a gray-bearded, blue-eyed man of 59 who has been a trapper in the province since 1974. One evening Ijoined Donahue at his one-room trapping cabin in a forest clearing. He prepared moose and venison on an iron stove, and we ate on his porch, soothed by the rustling leaves of the aspen that surround the cabin. When the breeze quit, however, the whisper of the aspen was replaced by another sound the faint whir of an oil pump 150 yards away. For nearly two decades Donahue made a respectable living from his 80-square-mile trapline, riding horses for days at a time into the snowy wilderness, sometimes collecting nearly a thousand pelts a year: squirrel, beaver, mink, ermine, muskrat, sable, timber wolf, lynx, and coyote. "I enjoyed this trapping life immensely," said Donahue, who has a wife and four children. "I know this bush, every bit of it. I enjoyed the solitude." Things began to change around 1990 when oil companies started hack ing out the first roads on the public land he leases exclusively for trapping. Oil drilling intensified, and by the late 1990s three timber companies were also felling trees on his trapline, which now has 55 oil wells and 50 miles of roads. What he no longer has is an abundance of animals. In good years he used to trap 240 beavers annually. Now he gets a mere dozen. He would sometimes bag nearly 600 squirrels but now gets maybe a hundred. That evening and the next day Donahue took me on a tour of his trap line. Driving down muddy roads in his old pickup, we passed oil drilling sites and numerous clear-cuts where loggers had chopped down aspen to the edge of beaver ponds. The ponds were abandoned, with grass sprout ing on top of the beavers' former lodges. Road construction crews had also shot beavers, Donahue said, because the animals' incessant drive to dam culverts often erodes roadbeds. "Look, they logged right up to this beaver house here," said Donahue. "They don't leave one stick of green wood, and without that food the beavers die right off. Wherever they clear-cut, the ponds dry out because there's no food for the beaver. It turns my stomach to see all this." On the other side of the world is a man who sees the exploi tation of the boreal forest as beneficial, a scientist whose views have been shaped by the enormity of the taiga that spans his native Russia. Vladimir Sedykh is the controversial chief scientist at the Sukachev Forest Institute in Novosibirsk, and as we flew north to the oil fields of Surgut, where he works to restore damaged woods and wetlands, he reveled in the forest's wild expanses. "Do you see these swamps and woods?" asked Sedykh, a portly 67-year-old who has spent 46 years studying forest regeneration. "There's nothing like this anywhere in the world. The damage from the oil industry is a drop in the ocean, and the benefits from this devel opment outweigh the disturbance a thousand times. There are pollution *See "Grizz" by Douglas H. Chadwick, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, July 2001.