published Sunday, September 13th, 2009

A symbol of Russian history at risk in California

By JUDY LIN

Associated Press Writer

FORT ROSS, Calif. — Nearly two centuries ago, Russian colonists selected a patch of sloping grassland along California’s rugged North Coast for a new settlement. It was from this spot about 80 miles north of San Francisco that they hoped to harvest Redwoods, grow crops and hunt seals for the lucrative fur trade.

Today, Russian Americans throughout Northern California honor their past by visiting Fort Ross Historic State Park. Hundreds drive up a winding coastal highway to picnic at the park on holidays, and priests still hold occasional services inside the fort’s reconstructed Russian Orthodox church.

But the colonial outpost that claims to have established California’s first shipyard and windmill is very much at risk of being abandoned by its current caretaker. Fort Ross is among 100 of California’s 279 state parks that officials are considering shutting down.

The state park closures were included in billions of dollars in spending cuts approved this summer by lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The possibility that Fort Ross could close prompted a visit from the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and his wife last month. During his trip, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (SAIR’-gay KIS’-lee-ak) called Fort Ross an important piece of Russia’s and California’s past and a symbol of positive U.S.-Russia relations.

In a letter, he asked Schwarzenegger to consider Fort Ross’ cultural and historic value when deciding which parks to close.

“I would like to hope that, even at this difficult time, the significance of Fort Ross as a symbol of the rich history of California and the United States as well as a memorable landmark in Russia-U.S. relations will be taken into consideration when your office makes a final decision,” Kislyak wrote.

Schwarzenegger wrote back, saying he recognized the significance of the site to Russian Americans and would try to keep as many parks open as he could. But he made no promises given the state’s financial problems.

Under the revised state budget passed in July, California cut spending across the board, from education to prisons to welfare programs, to close a deficit estimated at $26 billion. The state cut $14 million from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, reducing the department’s spending by 10 percent.

Combined with previous spending reductions, the department can no longer maintain and protect all state park land, including some of California’s most iconic beaches, forests and deserts. Park workers already are participating in three mandatory furlough days a month, and some could lose their jobs.

“People come here to enjoy the park,” said Robin Joy, who works as an interpretive specialist and has been at the park for 20 years. “It’s hard knowing that can be taken away.”

Vladimir Vinokurov, the consul general of Russia in San Francisco, said the Russian community is interested in helping keep Fort Ross open if the state decides to close it, perhaps creating some type of public-private partnership. Until the state makes a decision, rescue plans remain in limbo.

“It’s a very important part of our history and it’s a part of our joint history,” he said in an interview. “I always say that the relationship of America and Russia is not limited to the Cold War, but it goes back much longer.”

While the Spanish were pushing north from Mexico, the Russians established Fort Ross in 1812. It marked the southernmost settlement of czarist Russia’s colonization of the North American continent.

The colonists erected several buildings and a Russian Orthodox church inside a stockade. A village sprang up around the site, mixing the Russians with the native Alaskans they brought with them to hunt sea otters and the local Kashaya Indians, who worked as day laborers.

Within a few years, Russian settlers turned their focus to agriculture after the sea otter catch began to decline. They planted a vineyard, an orchard and a garden, but the land proved to be too difficult for sustained agriculture and the coastal fog produced poor wheat harvests. Gophers remained a constant pest.

The last of the Russian colonists abandoned the fort in 1842.

Today, visitors can see a reconstruction. And depending on the time of year, they can spot seals and migrating whales.

The governor initially proposed closing up to 220 state parks. At the time, administration officials said notable parks such as Hearst Castle and popular Southern California state beaches would likely keep operating. Parks that are self-sustaining through visitor fees also would be saved.

Among those at-risk are Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, Will Rogers’ Southern California ranch and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which boasts the world’s tallest tree at 370 feet. Even the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento was on the initial cut list.

It remains unclear how many parks ultimately will be ordered closed. Park officials have estimated the figure could be as high was 100. As a rule, they will focus on parks with the lowest attendance.

The nonprofit California State Parks Foundation has responded by launching the “I (heart) State Parks” campaign to raise awareness and financial support.

“We’re waiting like everyone else,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the parks foundation. “Obviously, we’re concerned about vandalism. We’re worried about wildfires from illegal camping. There’s the possibility of graffiti and poaching and marijuana growth in the back country.”

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On the Web:

Fort Ross Historic State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page(underscore)id449

Fort Ross Interpretive Association: http://www.fortrossinterpretive.org

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