Refuge System representatives
Refuge System representatives and their Russian colleagues examine the site of a new visitor center near Lake Baikal in Russia.
Credit: Marina Petrachkova

Russia’s 100–plus nature reserves have traditionally been open to researchers but closed to the public. That is beginning to change as the nation seeks both to attract more visitors and foster a culture of volunteerism. The Refuge System is helping provide some advice.

In fall 2012, about 100 people participated in the first–ever Washington, DC–to–Moscow video conference organized by EcoCenter Zapovedniks, a group of conservation experts that trains staff for Russian nature reserves. Focusing on volunteer recruitment and retention, Joanna Webb, national Friends and partnership coordinator, presented information on how refuges recognize volunteers, how volunteers are supervised and the economic benefit of using volunteers.

“It was an eye–opening experience,” says Webb, because of the lack of volunteers in Russia. “In our minds, we have a hard time getting volunteers, but actually we have an amazing gift here.” In 2011, 42,000 volunteers donated 1.5 million hours to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In summer 2012, Refuge System representatives traveled to Lake Baikal in Siberia and Kronotsky Nature Reserve in Kamchatka in far eastern Russia to suggest improvements to opportunities for foreign birdwatchers.

Supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland from J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL, helped design two bird–focused visitor centers on Lake Baikal. Westland and Great Lakes regional visitor services chief Maggie O’Connell drew site plans for a particularly remote area, including space for rangers to live and cook, housing and other facilities for visitors as well as exhibits for avid birders.

At a second visitor center on the shores of Lake Baikal, Westland and O’Connell designed exhibits, for families, including programs related to the bird banding station there. “We offered what we know works at ’Ding’ Darling,” said Westland. She recommended a very popular build–a–bird exhibit that lets children put together a bird on a carpeted wall to see how its beak and feet are adapted to different habitats. The Russians learned that visitor centers need to be open during regularly–scheduled hours. O’Connell and Westland recommended touch tables where visitors can hold objects from the wild as well as exhibits next to windows, with binoculars for people to look for birds.

“Russia has unique ecosystems,” says Steven Kohl, with the Service’s Division of International Conservation, “and the Service has an international reputation for designing visitor centers that convey a conservation message.”