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Problems of geosite protection and usage in Russia

Yu. S. Lyakhnitsky (RGO, VSEGEI)

21st century are characterized by the increased interest and attraction to the nature in many countries. It is evident that the artificial urbanized landscape cannot be favourable for normal functioning and full-fledged life of man, who is actually part of nature. As a result, tourism, various kinds of sport and rest linked to the nature become more and more attractive. The amount of tourists, who vacate in forests and in mountains, is constantly increasing and the anthropogenic pressure on the last areas of virgin nature increases as well.

Accordingly, the nature protection intensifies: the networks of protected areas are constantly growing. In Russia this development is slightly slowed down because of economic difficulties of the transitional period. There are cases of illegal use of specially protected environmental areas (SPEA) as commercial excursiontourist objects.

There is nothing negative in the fact that nature qualities are used for tourism, but many remarkable geosites perish because they lack reasonable control and good management. It is a worry that this process often seems to be spontaneous. Businessmen do not think of their role and responsibility to nature and society. Those who understand it, often have no governmental scientific and methodical support.

It is necessary to state that in Russia the methodical and legal base of geosite usage is applied insufficiently. There are very few practical scientific elaborations aimed at the harmonic combination of protection and positive humanistic use of nature, and those available are used very rarely in practice. At the same time, geosites preservation is a most important national task. It is necessary to bear in mind that it is impossible to renew the geosites, and when loosing them, we also loose irretrievably unique information and their aesthetic and inspiring wealth.

The situation with geosites triggers concern. They are protected poorly and to give them the status of SPEA, do not influence the status of these geosites in reality.

There are many examples of the unfavorable situation concerning SPEA usage. For example, caves are very attractive for commercial usage owing to their aesthetic properties and great interest of tourists. Unfortunately, at the same time they are the most vulnerable objects. Each geosite is unique and non-renewable by nature. It is possible to grow a forest, to revivify a population based on several species, but a geosite, an evidence of our planet’s history of great scientific value, a source of perception and inspiration, disappears for ever when destructed. Suffice it to remember an instance when a grandiose gypsum grotto of the Bornukovskaya cave was destroyed by explosion.

There are several excursion caves in Russia, but they are often used and arranged without relevant legal basis, without agreement with nature conservation bodies and sometimes without agreement with governmental entities, and what is more important, without a competent project, based on detailed studies and elaboration of rules of usage. The elaboration of the speleological underground excursion route must be based on detailed studies of morphology, stability of the natural roofs, hydrology, hydrochemistry, mineralogy, microclimatology, microbiology, peculiarities of the radiation background, radon hazard, etc. It is clear that speleological engineering is a crown of scientific speleology and this problem cannot be solved by a commercial company or by tourist-speleologists.

Meanwhile, a lot of caves in Russia can be used for excursions. In the Caucasus, Urals and the Far East there are areas of classic karst landscapes. It is many gypsum caves in the Pinego-Kuloi region, Arkhangelsk Oblast. In the Caucasus, in the Sochi National Park and in the area of the Logonaki Ridge there are the Vorontsovskaya (Fig. 1) and Krestic-Turist caves that is more than 10 km long. In the East Sayan, there is the Oreshnaya cave (ca. 60 km), the world’s largest cave in conglomerates. The unique suffosion-erosion “Svyataya” cave is situated on the tribute of the Oredezh River, not far from the Nabokov’s estate. This is a large picturesque grotto with a small stream. It is highly competitive with some karst caves of the Caucasus or the Urals in dimensions and aesthetic characteristics. At present, this cave is not protected and there are no organized excursions there, but this unique pseudokarst site is worthy of attention (Fig. 2).

In summer 2005 the Academy of Sciences of Bashkortostan held a very interesting workshop devoted to nature monuments under the aegis of the Russian “ProGEO” Group and arranged a tour to the wellknown “Icy Askyn Cave”. This is a huge grotto with microclimate of a “cold bag”, where perennial ice is accumulated. During the last years, with relative warm winters, the amount of leakages decreased, but ice stalagnates up to 15 m high have been preserved (Fig.3). The cave floor is covered with “sculpture groups” of whimsical ice stalagmites. This object is worth of attention, but it is impossible to make it a target of general tourism. The ice will start thawing and its value will be destroyed. Who can guarantee that tomorrow an adventurous businessman won’t arrange general tours there? The protection of this cave has not been arranged.

In the early 90s, geologists of VSEGEI, St. Petersburg State University, and speleologists of our city started the operations in order to save the Sablino nature monument. It had been announced to be a nature monument as far back as 1976, but it was poorly protected and it was severely degraded. The territory around the cave was built. It was filled with abundant dumps, the cave ceilings were collapsing, and hooligans and Satanists made themselves at home there. People often were lost there, and it was very dangerous to conduct tours.

Now the situation is quite different. The Sablino complex nature monument is one of the most valuable in the north-west of Russia. It is situated 40 km from St. Petersburg. There are twelve artificial caves (former mines essentially reworked by natural processes), two waterfalls, canyons of the Sablinka and Tosna rivers, and numerous rock exposures with cross-sections of Cambrian and Ordovician rock series typical of the sediments of the northwestern margin of the Russian plate, paleontological and mineralogical objects, spas, and places of interest associated with Russia’s history and culture.

In 1992, on the initiative of public organizations, the administration of the Leningrad Oblast made a decision to create the Sablino nature conservation excursiontourist centre (geoenvironmental reserve). The main concept of the enterprise was the arrangement of efficient control of the SPEA state and its protection using funds obtained from regulated excursion-tourist activity.

A team of geologists, speleologists, ecologists, mining engineers of VSEGEI and other enterprises under the leadership of the author, implemented successfully the feasibility studies based on budgets for environmental protection of the Leningrad Oblast and the Tosno Region. The set of investigations consisted in geoenvironmental, topographic, biological, speleological, microclimatic, radiation, radon, hydrological, hydrochemical, mining and other studies. Projects were elaborated by specialists of design and research institutes such as “Giprogor”, Giproruda, and the All-Russian Mine Institute. Special measures were elaborated for safety wintering of wing-handed animals (Fig. 4). The designed project was positively estimated by the Environmental Expertise, the administration of the Tosno Region, environmental community, geologists, and speleologists.

Then the process of regulated arrangement of the cave complex started. In the Levoberezhnaya cave an underground tour route was prepared (Fig. 5) including securing of unstable areas, concreting of upper parts of entrances, regulation of hydrologic and microclimatic regimes, creation of the excursion path, etc. After that, stone staircases on steep slopes of the route were made and fencing of the most valuable areas of the site was constructed. The established regime favours the conservation of the ecosystem localizing the visitors’ flow on the routes in the cave and in the recreation halls. These measures also promote education of students from the State University during geological practical training in summer. The students examine the most fresh and accessible outcrops in the cave with fine facial features of ancient Cambrian and Ordovician sediments (cross bedding, rewashing structures, collectors, etc.)

For the control of the monument state and its protection, a public non-commercial organization was created with the participation of speleologists, geologists, ecologists, tourists, and cultural workers. Based on the agreement with the Government of the Leningrad Oblast, this organization started the conservation of the nature monument and conduction of tours. The work is made using funds received from tourism. Now the round-the-clock guarding of the Levoberezhnaya cave is arranged, the territory of the monument is patrolled, the tours are conducted all the year round. Several variants of the tours were elaborated. Coach and working tours are made as well as “speleological trip” including the water (boating) area of underground lakes, etc.

In addition to the cave, sightseers visit two canyon-like river valleys, waterfalls, picturesque cliffs, mineral ferriferous hydrosulphuric springs. They are shown outcrops of blue Cambrian clays with pyrite crystals, Ordovician organogenic limestones with orthceratites, brachiopods, trilobites, etc. There are also very interesting historical places: the camp of Alexander Nevsky before his battle with the Swedes, the place, where previously there was an estate of Aleksey K. Tolstoy – “Pustynka”, the famous boulder of the philosopher and poet V.S. Soloviev, near to which he liked to have a rest, to write verses, etc.

Protection of the territory is conducted preserving the existing level of anthropogenic loading in the urbanized zones and does not suppose it’s strengthening. The zones of strict protection manage to be preserved against excessive visiting by tourists.

The experience of the creation of the Sablino natureprotection excursion-tourist center, on the whole, testifies that the chosen types of activity answer the posed task and promote both to the improvement of the nature monument and carrying out of educational works. It improves the general ecological and social situation in the area. In spite of the area has not got the official status of a geopark, in reality it can be considered as a geopark.

It was visited by tens of thousands of schoolchildren, family groups, people of various ages and professions. It is of particular importance that Sablino is visited by schoolchildren, teenagers, and to many of them these excursions “open eyes” to the beauty of nature, geology, ecology, speleology. During the excursions they listen to lectures during 3 or 4 hours and simultaneously they examine remarkable natural objects. The educational benefit of such excursions exceeds greatly the results of visiting museums and school lessons.

Another example of a positive geosite transformation is an attempt to save the Palaeolithic painting in the Kapova Cave (Shulgan Tash), Bashkortonstan, unique in East Europe. It is situated on the bank of the Belaya River in its latitudinal stream, in the area of the Sulgan Tash State Reserve (Fig. 6). This site is a complex monument (geological and cultural) of world significance. This is the only cave in the Russion Federation with diverse, relatively well-preserved ancient paintings ca. 17,000 years old (Front picture). Not long ago, tourists had to pass through the non-appointed cave in water and mud to see the Paleolithic paintings. Now, due to the activities of the Ministry of Culture and National Policy of Bashkortostan with the participation of specialists from VSEGEI and Russian Geographical Society (RGO), it has been possible to elaborate a local tour at the entrance into the cave and to block the entry into the cave to the original paintings.

Tourists look round numerous copies of ancient drawings, the giant Main Gallery and the grand grotto “Portal”. Careful arrangement of the second-order tour with a vertical component is well elaborated and justified as result of comprehensive research. Sightseers will be able to ascend onto the intermediate terrace of the gallery and to see the entrance into the cave from above. The concept of the regulated tour entrance area of the cave was approved by French experts, who visited the cave in 2004.

Unfortunately, part of the drawings is perishing because of excess water inflow into the cave, but a set of measures has been elaborated for water drainage and paint fixing, correction of hydrological regime and microclimate of the cave. The restoration of the paintings is planned.

The project is also being designed to create on the basis of this unique monument an up-to-date historical and archaeological, landscape-speleological, cultural, educational centre, whose infrastructure will be situated beyond the PPNA territory, so as sightseers do not cause damage. We hope that the implementation of this project will be a considerable contribution to Russia’s nature and historical monuments protection.

Another project elaborated by a group of researchers of VSEGEI and RGO is related to the Staraya Ladoga cave arrangement, the Leningrad Oblast. It is situated in the territory of the Staraya Ladoga Reserve Museum and the geosite of the same name.

An interesting project on the creation of the Mining Geological, and Speleological Museum in the Mine of the Pechelansky gypsum plant “Decor-1” in the vicinity of Arzamas was implemented by our specialists in cooperation with local miners. The activities were financed by the “Sin’ Rossii” Holding Company. This is Russia’s first mine museum where visitors will have a possibility to familiarize themselves with the ABC of this branch of sciences, little known to the common public and to enjoy the beauty of the underground kingdom.

Work with the caves, similar to other natural objects, requires professionalism. Alas, our universities do not teach speleology. Only having passed the difficult way of self-instruction, based on the knowledge of geology, microclimatology, hydrogeology, results of numerous expeditions, relying on works and experience of speleologists and karstologists of older generation such as G.A. Maksimovich and V.N. Dublyansky it is possible to approach the problem of safe usage and arrangement of caves.

Now it is important not to waste time. The accumulated material allow us to solve the following most important problems: professional inspection of geosites of world and federal significance, the organization of geosite monitoring, the elaboration of efficient juridical documents on the protection and employment of the geosites and the scientific and methodical base for the design of nature-protection excursion and tourist centers, the arrangement and employment of complicated and vulnerable natural objects. It is necessary that all the organizations and the individuals trying to use the geosites operate within the limits of rigid rules, “rules of play” similar for everybody, which do not give the possibility to cause damage to natural objects.

In Russia it is very important that the employment of geosites is done on the basis of regulated and strictly controllable use and that scientific and methodical principles are professionally approved after an environmental impact assessment.

A serious scientific approach is necessary for the estimation of the significance and the choice of the objects to be used and arranged. Systems of geosite estimation are to be developed concerning the commercial value and the scientific, nature-protection significance of a nature sanctuary and it is not obligatory that they must coincide. It is absolutely necessary to consider “the emotional-aesthetic potential”, peculiarities of the geosite perception. Unfortunately, they are often believed to be “unscientific”, superfluous and are often rejected while analyzing a geosite.

The arrangement of the Sablino nature-conservative excursion-tourist center is a good case of protection and utilization of a geosite. This experiment has given rather positive result, which can be widely used in Russia.

We have organized a group of scientists, researchersspeleologists consisting of researchers of VSEGEI and the Commission on Speleology and Karst History of the Russian Geographic Society, which has great experience in integrated study of large complex speleosystems and designing of ecologically harmless tours. It allows developing necessary scientific-methodical rules for safe use of geological heritage objects for excursions and for educational purposes. Our knowledge and experience can be very useful while deciding the fate of the most complex and valuable caves.

It is necessary to bear in mind that nature sanctuaries, being the most aesthetically and intellectually significant elements of a landscape, render very important emotional and educational influence on children, the rising generation, and that is why they are an ethnosforming factor. To save them is our duty!