Amid the rolling green-forested hills, a meandering trout stream, and tall grasslands of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, the delegation of Central Asian conservation leaders listened intently as United States Forest Service (USFS) rangers and a coalition of public-private partners explained innovative conservation and restoration practices. The delegation marveled at landscape similarities, such as the combination of mountains, high elevation grasslands, and wetlands. So, too, the impact of legacy land uses, such as livestock grazing, logging road construction, wetland drainage, firewood harvesting, and consequent erosion, as well as overfishing and overhunting, all are evident in Central Asia. At the invitation of USFS, ten protected area experts travelled from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to the United States in September 2015 to exchange information, study best practices, and grow professional networks with the goal of better protecting their national parks, wildlife refuges, and special natural spaces with extensive biodiversity.
To supply Central Asian leaders with tools to tackle these challenges, the USFS and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) developed a special program, Protected Area Management for Central Asia, for managers of protected land and leaders of nongovernmental organizations. Over two weeks, participants toured key areas in Colorado and New Mexico, studying in detail numerous examples of recreation management, partnerships, multiple-use issues on national forests and national park lands, and conservation education initiatives. Study tour sites such as the Carson National Forest were chosen specifically for their likeness to Central Asian landscapes. Mountainous regions such as Rocky Mountain National Park and a Collaborative Forest Restoration Project on Ohkay Owingeh tribal lands in New Mexico also showcased possible solutions for protected area challenges in Central Asia.
Seeding Ideas: Strengthening USFS-Central Asia Collaborations
In December 2014, a senior USFS delegation visited Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan, exploring opportunities to build on USFS’s ongoing Central Asia engagement. Standing knee-deep in the native tree nursery in the Ile-Alatau National Park just south of Almaty, Kazakhstan, the former head of the USFS, director of USFS International Programs, and Central Asian program specialist heard firsthand the research and development challenges facing the conservation managers. While driving the twisting, ice-covered mountain roads, the Kazakhstan national park director was fascinated by the USFS description of wildlife management and ecotourism concepts in U.S. National Forests. The USFS delegation was impressed by Ile-Alatau’s tree nursery and seed conservation efforts. Conversations conveyed mutual respect for each other’s work and began to germinate collaborations. On this bus ride, passing wild deer in the Tien Shan Mountains, ideas for the 2015 program began to crystallize.
After the December 2014 USFS delegation visit to the region, the USFS and regional USAID and U.S. Department of State science advisors in collaboration with local specialists identified seven major challenges facing Central Asian protected area managers: protecting parklands and creating wilderness areas, managing recreation and visitor use, developing conservation education and interpretation programs, growing research and development programs in natural resources management (both in parks and universities), developing partnerships and deepening community engagement, restoring forests and landscapes, and coordinating multiple use demands on parklands.
These challenges also were based on earlier Forest Service work, experience, and partnerships in Central Asia. For example, in 2010, the USFS assisted USAID in conducting the Central Asia Biodiversity Assessment to identify major threats facing natural resources in the region. The USFS also worked closely with nongovernmental organizations and academic partners to design payment for ecosystem services in local watersheds, assess opportunities for expanding and improving agroforestry practices, and conserve transboundary areas in the Pamir Mountains.
International Engagement and the USFS
The USFS has a deep history of international engagement. Since its inception in 1905, the USFS has been working with partners across the globe. Within the United States, the Forest Service manages 193 million acres (78 million hectares) of forests, grasslands, watersheds, deserts, wilderness, and recreation areas. The agency manages these public lands for multiple uses, including water quality, recreation, timber production, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity protection. Working in more than 90 countries, the Forest Service builds partnerships with local and international nongovernmental organizations, universities, and host country governments. Collaborations with other U.S. government agencies, including USAID and the U.S. Department of State, support mutually beneficial international relationships and strengthen scientific and diplomatic connections with other countries.
Like the Protected Area Management for Central Asia program, international collaboration often takes the form of bilateral exchanges or study tours. Other forms of collaboration include research partnerships, technical consultations, and capacity-building trainings. The USFS adapts study programs, such as Protected Landscape Management in Central Asia, to local context, maximizing collaboration and impact. Major areas of focus for the USFS international engagement include addressing climate change and sustainable natural resources management, combating illegal logging, conserving threatened migratory species and their habitats, and protecting forests from invasive species.
In these roles, the USFS represents U.S. interests internationally and complements technical activities outlined in scientific agreements between the United States and other countries. Often, the USFS works closely with USAID and the U.S. Department of State specifically to advance diplomacy through scientific and technical cooperation. Approximately two-thirds of funding for USFS International Programs (about $20 million) comes from these two agencies. The Forest Service works closely with its counterpart agencies in other countries to address global issues that negatively affect the natural resources and economy of the United States, including global climate change, invasive species, and illegal logging. Technical specialists, even from different countries and cultures, speak a common “language” when it comes to conservation and restoration practices. Shared professions and interest create bonds and mutual respect—the basis for advancing positive relations and diplomacy with other countries. New and innovative solutions to shared problems frequently result from sharing best practices. “Soft diplomacy” improves cross-cultural understanding, creates shared goals and objectives, and develops professional networks, among myriad positive benefits.
“Soft diplomacy” improves cross-cultural understanding, creates shared goals and objectives, and develops professional networks, among myriad positive benefits.
Since the USFS works in close partnership with USAID, the U.S. State Department, and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, all USFS international activities closely align with U.S. foreign policy and complement USAID or other U.S. government programs while meeting the needs of in-country partners. The USFS has been successful in engaging host country government agencies on sensitive issues through a natural resource lens, such as improving environmental governance.
A strong example of this is the One Map Initiative. In Indonesia, the USFS and U.S. Department of State established a unique partnership with the government of Indonesia to promote reform within the land use sector. Accurate official maps are essential for effective land management and governance, and inconsistent maps had resulted in severe land conflicts and had constrained conditions for sustainable natural resource management. To confront this challenge, the Indonesia One Map Initiative works toward a unified national mapping system, with USFS directly engaging government agencies to develop, organize, and distribute geospatial data products. This collaboration has resulted in the production of new high-resolution national base maps and a web application to allow citizens to contribute map data. These technical endeavors improve Indonesia’s capacity for evidence-based decision making and robust public engagement on the country’s most vital issues.
Conservation in Central Asia
From fertile steppe grasslands to tugai forests, and burning desert to alpine meadows, lakes, and tundra, Central Asia consists of a wide variety of transboundary ecosystems and landscapes. A high level of biodiversity and endemism are present, covering nearly all biogeographic zones. For example, 7,000 species of angiosperm flora, 172 species of mammals, and approximately 540 species of birds inhabit Central Asia.1 Unique plants and animals include the elusive snow leopard, saiga antelope, Bukhara deer, Marco Polo sheep, wild tulip, and relict fruit and nut tree species, including wild almond, apple, cherry, plum, and walnut. The mountains of Central Asia are considered to be a global biodiversity hot spot.2 Protected areas within each of the five countries shelter many of these diverse and unique landscape, and have potential for transboundary expansion and exceptional recreation opportunities. The quantity of land with protected status varies greatly among the Central Asian republics. Kazakhstan has the highest absolute amount of land under protection with 233,000 square kilometers, but Tajikistan has the highest percentage of land—approximately 22 percent.3, 4
Parks, conservation areas, and open spaces are used widely by citizens of all five countries for picnicking, hiking, skiing, herding, and hunting. Specific data are difficult to obtain, as many parks are unable to measure visitor usage. Ile-Alatau National Park near Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, is filled with visitors every weekend. International tourism to the region is increasing, especially with recent visa regulation reductions in Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. For example, over the past ten years, the number of international tourists in Kazakhstan increased from just over 1 million to nearly 5 million. The country now ranks 51st for international visitors.5
Resources devoted to land management, conservation, and planning have diminished substantially since 1991. Despite the tremendous technical expertise across the region, salaries do not match skills, and many are attracted to the more lucrative and prestigious banking, oil, and education sectors. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, agencies involved in managing Central Asian protected areas have struggled due to lack of financial resources and staff capacity. The five countries comprise a diverse mix of upper-middle and low-income countries and are of major strategic importance due to their geographic location and natural resource endowments. A prosperous and peaceful Central Asia supports economic growth and regional stability across the broader Silk Road corridor, a U.S. foreign policy priority.
Over the past twenty-five years, the U.S. government and organizations such as the European Union and World Bank have supported these countries’ efforts to improve living standards of their people, promote economic growth, and ensure that future generations benefit from sound environmental practices and social development. Given rural communities’ reliance on land-based activities, such as agriculture and grazing, sound environmental practices and a sustainable resource base are critical for economic livelihoods. Major U.S. conservation efforts through USAID and USFS programs have focused on saiga antelope, the snow leopard, and watershed conservation, as well as anti-wildlife trafficking.
Nongovernmental organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to create a Peace Park, encompassing the areas of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan high in the Pamir Mountains. Sponsored through the Global Environment Fund, the Central Asia Transboundary Biodiversity Project is designed to link four noncontiguous protected areas in a bioregional plan to address conservation in the landscape outside of the four protected areas: Aksu-Djabagly Nature Reserve in Kazakhstan, two nature reserves in the Krygyz Republic, and Chatkal State Nature Reserve in Uzbekistan.
For the past eight years, the USFS has been increasing its collaborative partnerships in Central Asia, together with leaders from government and nongovernmental organizations to address a variety of conservation and natural resource management issues. In particular, degradation of arable land and pasture, deforestation, water scarcity and inefficient water use, land overuse, and global climate change threaten the regional biodiversity, and, given Central Asia’s geopolitical importance, regional stability. The USFS is committed to promoting biodiversity conservation and sustainable resource management globally by sharing expertise and lessons learned, including with Central Asia. Collaboration also provides useful examples of how to work with resource-dependent communities under challenging environmental and political conditions.
Germinating Saplings: The Power of Cooperation
Back in the Carson National Forest, on the blustery September afternoon, wearing headsets that amplified translation from English to Russian, the delegation and USFS and USAID organizers stood at rapt attention, embodying the Oliver Wendell Holmes observation, “Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” Surveying the now-recovered Comanche Creek landscape, heavy uses of the past, such as timber harvesting, mining, and livestock overgrazing were difficult to imagine. Through a unique public-private partnership,6 soil erosion, sediment load, water temperature, and riparian ecosystems have been stabilized and restored. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the dramatic conservation results a “Success Story.”
The USFS and USAID organizers designed this program not just to address these common conservation challenges, but also to facilitate multiple levels of diplomacy: multilaterally within Central Asia, bilaterally between Central Asian countries and the United States, and multilaterally across the region and the United States. Incorporating the World Bank’s approach to foster diplomacy across the five Central Asian countries through a regional lens,7 program leaders constructed activities to focus on daily knowledge sharing and dialogue among the participants, enhancing multilateral diplomacy within Central Asia. Lectures, tours, and presentations from USFS and U.S. national park staff strengthened bilateral and multilateral relationships between the United States and individual countries, and between the United States and the entire region. Participants learned about the U.S. approach to several topics studied, and they gained insights into each other’s challenges and approaches, providing a basis for broader conservation networks within the region. After the program’s conclusion, a serendipitous, formal event at the highest level of diplomacy reinforced these approaches. Central Asian foreign ministers, together with the U.S. secretary of state, identified regional cooperation as a top priority through the formal Joint Declaration of Partnership and Cooperation,8 announced at the C5+1 ministerial conference in November 2015.9
Each day on the study tour, participants worked in small groups, and organizers ensured that countries collaborated with their neighbors. New concepts, such as wilderness area protection and extensive volunteer programs, were eye-opening and triggered lively discussion and debate. For example, the concept of volunteer involvement resonated deeply with the delegation, and U.S. hosts answered myriad questions about training, commitment, and legal implications. The idea of wilderness permits and enforcement sparked great interest, as Central Asian park rangers face tremendous responsibilities with limited resources. Recreation infrastructure ubiquitous in the United States, such as concessionaire management, special use permits, outfitters and guides, and ski areas on national lands, stimulated much conversation and questions from the delegation. Participants spoke with social scientists and nongovernmental organization advocates about citizen science programs. Such programs serve to supplement scientific efforts by using volunteers while enrolling the public in protecting natural resources for the future. The delegation’s interest was piqued in these conversations, generating many ideas for implementation in Central Asia. One participant noted: “Not only did the tour include a deep understanding of natural resources structures, we had the opportunity to compare these to Central Asia, and consider the opportunities to adopt some U.S. management aspects; in particular, the engagement of civil society and business in the protection of natural resources.” Several participants commented about their newfound understanding to consider and actively engage indigenous people and local populations in land management.
Leaders expressed disbelief at the depth of resources devoted to natural resources research and development in the United States. Part of this may be due to differences in standards of living between Central Asia and the United States. At the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, the delegation delivered country-specific presentations, entertaining many questions from the audience. Central Asian and American researchers engaged deeply with one another through translation, identifying common wildlife management approaches, flora and fauna, and current issues. Some shared data with one another, hovering over computers that held detailed geospatial images of parklands. USFS research staff conveyed their respect for Central Asia conservation activities, despite limited financial resources and given the extensive size of the parks.
Fire managers from both sides of the Pacific Ocean exchanged best practices for fire management, forest ecosystem restoration, and landowner engagement. Standing amid groves of healthy ponderosa pine clusters in New Mexico, USFS and Central Asian forest rangers exchanged stories of the old and new approaches, often laughing together at dated land management techniques. For example, both the United States and Central Asian countries used to focus on extinguishing all fires, regardless of fire size, proximity to human populations, and forest cover type. Now, fire management emphasizes forest ecology restoration, through controlled burns and positive fires that reduce the amount of available fuels (highly flammable dead and dried wood in the forest) and propensity for wildfires.
Building Trees: New Directions in Central Asia
On the final day, delegation participants shared their ideas for new approaches in Central Asian conservation management with senior USFS leadership. Each country delivered a presentation, showcasing the possibilities now evident through applying the program content and intimate exchanges with USFS and staff from other U.S. federal and state land management agencies.
Program participants conveyed their eagerness to improve recreational opportunities in Central Asia’s protected areas. Participants outlined plans to integrate many practices observed firsthand in the United States, such as engaging volunteers, developing conservation education materials, and forging productive partnerships between private sector and civil society organizations.
Upon returning to their home countries, delegation participants immediately began translating ideas into action. For example, the head of the Department of Conservation Education and Working with the Public in the Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve of the Kyrgyz Republic applied the information to reshape her regional programming. Altyn Kazakbaev introduced involvement of volunteers in scientific and ecotourism activities, an innovation in the Kyrgyz Republic. The approach placed an “emphasis on children and young people, with their creative thinking and doing.” Partnering with local universities and secondary schools, as well as clubs, she created a brand: “We are for clean!” to focus on reducing litter in the park. Her plan also includes “the release of environmental information booklets, brochures, information kiosks, and a film about the specially protected natural, biosphere territory Issyk Kul. Another project under development is the implementation of an eco-information center. Introducing such will be a great contribution to the preservation of natural resources.” Other participants articulated the importance of government and local contribution to forest protection, stressing that businesses, indigenous communities, volunteers, and ministries all must work closely toward this goal.
The Central Asia study tour serves as a prime example of amplifying the impact of the USFS’s technical support through facilitating regional connections. The USFS is exploring opportunities to facilitate multilateral, transboundary cooperation across the five Central Asian countries on specific initiatives. Priority areas of immediate focus for the USFS include biodiversity conservation, rangeland management, sustainable forestry (e.g., fruit and walnut forests), watershed management, and improving livelihoods in rural and mountainous communities. In partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, the USFS has been keen to complement U.S. government and international efforts to address snow leopard conservation in Central Asia. The changing climate threatens the future of this elusive animal, which relies on a specific mountain ecosystem for survival. These efforts would build on USFS’s significant experience cooperating with partners to manage wildlife habitat across jurisdictions in North America and monitor overall ecosystem health and biodiversity using keystone species. For example, during the tour, participants learned about the Canada lynx, a federally listed species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in the Rocky Mountains, and the USFS work managing its habitat.
Given its experience working directly with partners overseas, the USFS is uniquely poised to integrate into the political and cultural contexts, Central Asia included. In addition to supporting diplomacy, USFS’s approach incorporates social science principles to advance forest and biodiversity protection internationally. For example, USFS develops the capacity of local partners, helping these organizations deepen their relationship with the public. This is accomplished through education and outreach campaigns, as well as achieving success as front-line protectors and stewards of natural resources.
A clear priority for USFS moving forward is deepening international partnerships with key nongovernmental organizations, driven by a desire to build community-based capacity and support effective collaboration between communities and land managers. The USFS will continue to work with natural resources leaders and organizations in Central Asia to select projects “on the ground” and support conservation and sustainability activities. Working at the grassroots and local levels, the USFS collaborates with local partners to support consensus-building processes and dialogues that incorporate views of all stakeholders, including municipal and federal government agencies, local citizens, environmental advocates, scientists, and business interests.
By providing technical assistance and specialized trainings such as the 2015 Protected Landscape Management in Central Asia program, the USFS helps international partners engage in environmental policy analysis, and advocacy; build community coalitions; engage volunteers; and hone organizational governance—all building and strengthening institutional capacity. Highlighting success stories and lessons learned from land management experience in the United States, the USFS provides international partners with viable examples of citizen participation in policy and decision-making processes, successful public-private partnerships, multi-stakeholder collaboration, and meaningful participation by marginalized and vulnerable groups and populations, such as women, youth, and indigenous groups. This work and approach support the belief that significant impact often is greatest at the local level. Such efforts strongly complement USFS relationships at senior governmental levels, as well as international diplomacy.
This approach today reinforces the importance of international science collaboration as set forth by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USFS (1905-10). “World-wide practice of conservation and the fair and continued access by all nations to the resources they need are the two indispensable foundations of continuous plenty and of permanent peace,” said Pinchot. A national forest in Washington state is named for this visionary leader.
- Chris Magin, “World Heritage Thematic Study for Central Asia: A Regional Overview,” paper prepared for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Programme on Protected Areas, August 2005, http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/central_asia.pdf
- Conservation International, Biodiversity Hotspots: Mountains of Central Asia, http://www.conservation.org/where/priority_areas/hotspots/europe_central_asia/Mountains-of-Central-Asia/Pages/default.aspx
- IUCN Regional Office for West/Central Asia and North Africa, “The Conservation and Sustainable Use of Freshwater Resources in West Asia, Central Asia and North Africa,” paper prepared for the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, China, November 17–25, 2004. https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/import/downloads/the_conservation_and_sustainable_use_of_freshwater_ressources_in_west_asia_central_as.pdf
- Biodiversity in Central Asia: A Visual Synthesis, Zoï Environment Network, 2011. http://www.zoinet.org/web/sites/default/files/publications/Biodiversity-CA-EN.pdf
- The MacroEconomy Meter, “2008 Tourism Data,” http://mecometer.com/
- The public-private partnership includes Carson National Forest; Quivira Land and Water Program, a local grazing collective; state and municipal conservation groups; Trout Unlimited; and the Boy Scouts.
- The World Bank, “World Bank in Central Asia,” http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/eca/brief/central-asia
- US State Department. “Joint Declaration of Partnership and Cooperation by the Five Countries of Central Asia and the United States of America, Samarkand, Uzbekistan,”last modified November 1, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/11/249050.html
- The C5+1 comprises the five Central Asian countries that participated in the USFS’s Protected Area Management for Central Asia—Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmen bistan, and Uzbekistan—plus the United States.