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Russia: Old Spy Satellites Now Support Siberian Tigers

  • Bruce Keppel

BELLINGHAM, Wash.; 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Spy tools of the Cold War originally developed to track Soviet submarines are now helping environmentalists detect and analyze patterns of land use and climate on a scale never before attempted. The result will be better information on which to base resource management plans. A young researcher at Western Washington University in the small West Coast port city of Bellingham is using space satellite technology -- the Cold War's notorious "spy in the sky" -- on behalf of the diminishing herd of theworld's largest cat species, the 450 or so remaining Siberian tigers.

The researcher is Sam Cushman, a 24-year-old graduate ecology student.Last year, he became the first representative of Western Washington University to study in Russia under an exchange program with Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok that has already brought several Russian students here to study the same sort of high-tech environmental technology.

Cushman spent much of his time working with a Russian student in the Sikhote-Alin International Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling, densely wooded wildlife sanctuary north of Vladivostok. Curiously -- perhaps fortunately! -- the two didn't encounter any Siberian tigers on their forays, though they did encounter elk, deer and bear. In any case, their quest was not to find tigers but to document and analyze in detail 135 carefully defined sites, or wildlife habitats, within eight different watersheds in the reserve and surrounding forests.

The data accumulated by the Russian and the American enabled Cushman, on his return to Bellingham, to verify and correct the information he had gleaned from the satellite images collected from both civilian satellites and declassified military space photographs. Now he is using this corrected and verified data to analyze landscape patterns and land-use practices in the vast region that is home to the Siberian tiger.

His next step will be to compare land-management practices at the Sikhote-Alin reserve with its "sister" reserve in Washington state's Olympic National Park and with wildlife reserves in China and Oregon, the state just south of Washington on the U.S. Pacific Coast.

Environmental analysis on such a large scale as this -- embracing the northern reaches of the Pacific Rim -- is the specialty of David Wallin, the 40-year-old Western Washington University professor directing Cushman's research.

Professor Wallin maintains that "you can't make sound decisions about how you're going to manage land by focusing on relatively small tracts"-- though small-scale studies dominated research so far -- half of it concentrated on samples not much more than a meter square!

Wallin says that "one of the lessons learned in the last five to 10 years is that you have to take a broad view of things." In one of his projects, for example, Wallin generated maps that showed how clear-cut logging in coastal Oregon's mountains -- that is, cutting down all trees in a given section of a forest -- has deprived birds, small mammals, frogs and other species of their natural habitats.

That's a significant observation, since the U.S. Forest Service's policy is to scatter these relatively small "clear-cut" areas within a given forest in the belief that this minimizes environmental damage. Wallin's study has shown just the opposite -- that the resulting "checkerboard" pattern of clear-cut squares within the densely wooded mountains deprives some species of the habitat they need to survive.

"The northern spotted owl," he says, referring to one endangered species in the area, "requires large blocks of old-growth forest, so the 'checkerboard pattern' doesn't leave large enough areas" of undisturbed forest for them. Moreover, re-forestation efforts in some of the clear-cut squares is less successful than in others. This suggests, he says, a need for more research into the kinds of areas that can be harvested for timber without negative consequences for the rest of the forest population.

Wallin's work is described as "nationally significant" by Professor James Agee, a forestry ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, 150 kilometers south of Bellingham. Agee says that "many of the problems we're now facing in ecology are at the scale of the landscape -- a much larger scale than we've generally dealt with."

Wallin, Cushman and other graduate researchers working with the professor here in Bellingham intend to share their data and maps with their Russian colleagues. These ecological experts are well aware that Siberia and much of the Russian Far East is one of the rare places where natural resources are not only incredibly rich but -- because of the Soviet emphasis on military applications -- scarcely tapped and thus ripe for exploitation.

Wallin says Russia still possesses a quarter of its primeval forests -- compared to just five percent in the United States. Moreover, the region's energy resources are huge, and the Russian Far East has scarcely tapped rich deposits of diamonds and gold.

Wallin and his protege', Sam Cushman, believe that their work can contribute to Russia's ability to manage these natural resources wisely. They say prudent exploitation of these resources will make all the difference for the region's future -- and that includes, they add, that of the Northwest United States as well.