Analysis and Commentary
Cape Tegethoff on Hall Island, Franz Josef Land
© Nikolai Gernet

High in the Arctic

On the far side of the world, on the Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos in the Arctic Ocean there is the Russian Arctic National Park. The word "the most" is used to describe it: it is the northernmost, one of the youngest and the largest natural reserve in Russia. Acting Director of the marine nature reserve Alexander Kirilov speaks about what can be found in the Russian Arctic and how to manage the national park in an article from the RIA Novosti special project, The Year of the Environment.

The Russian Arctic National Park has been one of the most interesting places for those who are fond of northern landscapes. Located on the remote islands in the Arctic Ocean, the park attracts travelers with its pristine nature, the beauty of northern landscapes, majestic glaciers and waterfalls. The park is home to polar bears, bowhead whales, narwhals and Atlantic walruses. Numerous seabirds, including ivory gulls, guillemots, little auks, auklets and kittiwakes have breeding sites there.

However, the national park is not only a tourist site. Its main objective is to preserve and study the cultural, historical and natural heritage of the western part of the Russian Arctic. It means that each year the park hosts research and environmental events. Some have to manage all this; Russian Arctic Acting Director Alexander Kirilov believes that it takes many years working in the reserve and all levels of development from an expert to leading expert, from department head to deputy director to become a good manager.

"If you have work experience, a background that helps you make the right decisions, if you know the specifics of the area, the history of the organization, then you can work," Kirilov said.

He himself went all the way: he has worked here almost since the park's establishment. Kirilov joined the Russian Arctic in 2011, while the park was established on June 15, 2009.

Hardships of the North

The Russian Arctic National Park is located in the high-latitude Arctic, which means long winters and short and cold summers. These conditions limit work opportunities in the region. The national park is located far from the continent and is only accessible by sea. All these conditions determine the operations of the park's employees. The field season begins in the spring and lasts until October. On average, most employees spend about four months per year at the park. However, there is also an all-season facility on Alexandra Land.

So what exactly do the staff  that work at the park do? It is prohibited to conduct any operations in the park that might harm nature, and visits to the park are limited, so the employees are charged with daily patrolling of the territory.

Between 2012-2015, on the islands of the Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos efforts were made to clean the islands from junk metal, construction waste and fuel residues. Over 42,000 metric tons of garbage of all kinds were removed and treated over this period; 349 hectares of land were cultivated from scratch. In the summer 2017, this work will be continued.

Since the establishment of the Russian Arctic Park, annual research expeditions have been held here: first of all, to watch and count marine mammals, birds, polar bears, and also to access the biodiversity and map plant formations. A bio-geographical map is being prepared of sites that are free from snow and ice.

National park employees are also engaged in studying the monuments of Arctic exploration, among them the camps of Evelyn Baldwin and Anthony Fiala's American expeditions, the monuments on Rudolf Island — from the expeditions of the first explorers to the Soviet Arctic station, as well as the Schatzgräber, or "Treasure Hunter" weather station which operated on Alexandra Land from September 1943 to July 1944.

In winter, the national park does not suspend operations, but begins in-house work to analyze the data collected, prepare reports and develop new projects.

About 1,000 tourists from over 40 countries visit the park every year. In mid-June — early September, several cruise ships with travelers arrive in the Russian Arctic. Employees from the security and tourism departments escort groups in the park to ensure environmental regulations and also to prevent bear attacks on visitors.

Tourists often ask how dangerous it is to meet a polar bear.

"Usually I suggest they imagine a hypothetical situation: about a hundred tourists have been to the island, and most of them aren't young. And suddenly a polar bear appears — the largest land predator. The tourists have just listened to a lecture about it on the ship and they know that the master of the Arctic is large, weighs about 600 kilograms, its blow force  reaches two tons, it can reach a speed of up to 60 km/h, and will be three meters tall if stands on its hind legs. So people, who know all that, will most likely panic and run back to the ship. And this will evoke the hunter instinct in a healthy bear," Kirilov said.

According to Kirilov, the Russian Arctic National Park takes these risks into consideration. Before letting tourists get off a ship, park employees make a visual inspection of the site, then the park state inspectors get off the ship and walk there personally first of all. The head of the group assigns those who will be standing along the perimeter of the area while the tourists walk around. Inspectors watch and monitor the situation carefully because the bear could make an unexpected appearance any moment," Kirilov added.

Tourists can watch a polar bear from the ship. "The animal is very curious and approaches the boat when it sees it. We have a lot of photos in our archive featuring bears that lean against the side of the boat and gaze up at the people. For tourists, this is the only opportunity to see a bear from a safe distance," Kirilov said. It is not allowed to make a noise, to try to attract the animal and to use a flash. State inspectors enforce these safety rules.

Contrary to expectations, the acting director of the national park does not have to be present there the entire year round. Since the Russian Arctic is located far from the continent it is very difficult to manage the organization while being at high latitudes.

"You can't solve any problem while in the park, because the satellite phone service has its specifics," Kirilov said.

The head of the park is facing numerous tasks which it is easier to address from the continent. The acting director only can visit the park after solving all pressing issues of logistics and maintenance. "When everything works fine, then you can afford spending a week in the park to assess the situation and adjust the strategy, to point out the mistakes or praise the staff," he said.

Secrets of work

According to Kirilov, the head of the national park is charged with working on a development strategy. While his deputies are engaged in current environmental operations, research and education, the director has to assess the situation in all these directions. "In my opinion, the director needs to have time to step back and look at the bigger picture to understand it and see future prospects. Because if you don't have a three-year plan (preferably a 5-6-year plan), then you won't be able to be successful," Kirilov said.

He also added, however, that despite all difficulties of this job it can be very satisfying. The key to a successful management of such a large area as a national park is to love the job and to do it well.

"It is very pleasing to see that it is developing and there are good prospects for the future and the initiatives you implement," Kirilov said.

Another important objective of the Russian Arctic is education. It is no secret that many people do not know much about the life in the North and the work of polar explorers in the conditions of the Arctic, and even fewer people manage to see it for themselves. "Many people think that a polar explorer lives in a tent and wears a jacket full of holes and felt boots, and carries an ax in his hand. But when they come to the park they see sporty strong people wearing field clothes who can speak about their work in perfect Russian and English (most of park employees speak two languages)," Kirilov said. "And so people change their opinion about the work in the park and the activities of the government in the Arctic in general." Kirilov believes that the national park is the face of Russia in the Arctic.

Interview taken by Maria Malinovskaya