Interview: Sarah Sweedler, CEO of Fort Ross Conservancy, discusses the legacy of the former Russian settlement, its impact on U.S.-Russia relations and what the future might hold for the area

Fort Ross is a nature preserve, as is so much of the Sonoma coast, and California takes preservation of its natural resources very seriously. Photo: Fort Ross Conservancy

One of the most significant sites in the history of Russian California, Fort Ross serves as an important reminder of the past Americans and Russians share. Fort Ross was founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Company, Russia’s first joint-stock company, as part of the country’s expanded colonization plans.

During its operation by the company, Fort Ross served as an important trading post as well as a source of food for the Russian settlements in Alaska. In the 1840s, it passed into private hands, and it became part of the preservation efforts of the State of California in the early 1900s.

Today, Fort Ross works to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia, particularly through the Fort Ross Dialogue, an annual event that brings together Russian and American thought leaders from academia, business, the media and diplomatic circles. The event is organized by Fort Ross Conservancy (FRC), a non-profit organization, which supports the site; the California State Park Cooperating Association; and the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center. This year’s Forum took place on Oct. 17 and was co-hosted by Stanford University and the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF).

Russia Direct sat down with the organizer of the event, Sarah Sweedler, CEO of Fort Ross Conservancy, to discuss the legacy of the former Russian settlement, its impact on U.S.-Russia relations, the challenges it faces and what the future might hold for the site.

Russia Direct: Let’s start with some background on Fort Ross Conservancy. How long have you been working there and what is the source of your inspiration?

Sarah Sweedler: I first volunteered on the board for the Fort Ross Interpretive Association in 2002 — we changed our name to Fort Ross Conservancy in 2011. For many years I was a volunteer working happily on Fort Ross projects that interested me. Now I am an administrator and my job is to enable other people’s interesting projects. I joined as staff in 2010 and dedicate all my energies towards Fort Ross Conservancy and supporting California State Parks at Fort Ross. Many people are invested in this stretch of land, and I’m honored to work in service of that.

RD: What was your first impression of Fort Ross?

S.S.: I felt an immediate connection to the place. While East Coast historical sites are well developed and at some level more “interpreted,” Fort Ross is different. It is quiet; it gives its visitors time and space to respond; and it has just enough infrastructure to give you a sense of what was, but no so much that your imagination is stifled. It’s magical. Personally, while I love to see happy people at Fort Ross during events, I like it best during the off-season when it’s quiet.

RD: What was the most memorable event for you at Fort Ross?

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S.S.: I remember early on I was at our big summer festival, and I witnessed a reunion when two women who had been separated in the Soviet Union just happened to run into each other at Fort Ross. It was an emotional reunion, absolutely wonderful to witness, and even better that they found each other at this “second home” to so many Russians. Fort Ross brings people together.

RD: Why do you think is it important to support Fort Ross Conservancy today?

S.S.: Fort Ross Conservancy is dedicated to promoting and preserving Fort Ross and Salt Point parks – our entire mission revolves around this goal. Our staff is small, but incredibly dedicated, adaptable and nimble. We run our own web server, we do our own desktop publishing, manage events, provide bilingual tours, fundraise, write grants, run the bookshop, and take on a thousand other tasks.

These diverse talents and the strong motivation to implement simply don’t exist in a big bureaucracy such as California State Parks. The land is owned by State Parks and we work in partnership with them, but for us, we live and breathe this one stretch of coastline. All parks need such collaboration, as both the private and the public entities bring different skills to the table.

RD: To what extent could Fort Ross be seen in the context of the environmental movement? Could it save animals, plants and play an additional role as a reserve park?

S.S.: The historic compound makes up a small fraction of the park. Fort Ross boasts 4.5 miles of pristine coastline and over 3,300 acres of coastal and redwood forest habitat, from waterfront to ridge top, so in fact the natural history dominates the cultural. Fort Ross is indeed a nature preserve, as is so much of the Sonoma coast, and California takes preservation of its natural resources very seriously. The waters offshore [from] Fort Ross are also under federal protection as of 2015.

Fort Ross Conservancy embraces this opportunity to use Fort Ross' unique blend of cultural and natural history to talk about conservation. For example, several species of marine mammals (Steller Sea Lions, California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals) have re-established populations at Ross, while the California Sea Otter has not returned.

FRC oversees Marine Mammal Monitoring to track changes to these populations, and we both distribute this data to the scientific community and share it with the public. FRC also offers the Marine Ecology Program, a citizen science, environmental educational and monitoring program for teachers, students and parents, with Fort Ross as the classroom.

The Russian settlers chose a beautiful location, as did the Kashia Pomo Indians before them — vibrant tide pools, elegant redwood groves, offshore rocks providing protection to marine mammals and breeding birds and the wide vistas of the Pacific.

RD: How does the California government see Fort Ross — as a burden or as an important heritage landmark that needs to be saved?

S.S.: California State Parks is responsible for more than 280 parks, and Fort Ross is but one of them. I think State Parks is incredibly proud of its parks and it has done a fantastic job in caring for Fort Ross over the many decades. Right now the financial situation is such that the State Parks cannot provide what Fort Ross needs, and I believe they are happy that we, the nonprofit, has stepped in to fill the gap.

But ultimately it is a State Park and it belongs to the people of California, and I look forward to the time when the park systems can once again develop Fort Ross and focus more energy on it. They have done so in the past, and I believe will do so in the future.

RD: It seems to be financially challenging to keep such parks as Fort Ross afloat today. How do you deal with the problem?

S.S.: We have quite a few very dedicated sponsors and we are incredibly grateful to them — we couldn’t do this work without strong partnerships with the corporations and foundations that support us. Renova Group has been with us for five years, and they have helped us to grow beyond our wildest expectations [Renova Group is a Russian conglomerate with interests in aluminum, oil, energy, telecommunications and other sectors – Editor’s note].

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Transneft [the Russian state-owned transport and oil pipeline company], Sovcomflot [the Russian maritime shipping company specializing in petroleum and shipping of liquefied natural gas] and Chevron [an American multinational energy corporation] have sponsored many interesting projects, as well as the big Harvest Festival and Fort Ross Dialogue, and their support has widened our base tremendously. They share our Fort Ross vision and it’s a pleasure to work with them.

These corporations care, and they have had a tremendously positive impact on Fort Ross these past five years. We are grateful!

RD: What problems have you been facing in supporting Fort Ross other than financial difficulties, if any?

S.S.: Fort Ross is important to Russians, but it’s also literally “home” to the Kashia Pomo, and it’s an important story for the Alaska Natives as well. The stories are different for each people. Making sure that each of these distinct groups has a voice is not always easy. Of course, this is also an asset, because a place with diverse people and stories is a place worth protecting and preserving.

RD: Does politics hamper your attempts to save Fort Ross and put it forward on the U.S.-Russia agenda?

S.S.: We are a park, and our vantage point is by definition positive and future-looking. Fort Ross must remain a place of collaboration, despite what the front page of any newspaper prints.

RD: Can the U.S.-Russia shared historical legacy (such as Fort Ross) be a tool to bring Russia and the U.S. together? Or is it naïve to think that a common history can alleviate tensions, given the fact that politicians always focus on the current agenda, not the past?

S.S.: I sincerely believe that Fort Ross is both a place and a platform for collaboration. It is our shared history, and to work on the physical land together reminds us of this peaceful past, but also brings us together in the present so that the past informs these new relationships. Common ground, as we say.

Sarah Sweedler, Fort Ross ConservancyRD: In this case, to what extent is it possible to make the agenda of Fort Ross mainstream?  What can be done to make it popular among Americans and Russians?

S.S.: Spreading the word about Fort Ross takes time. Our visitation and outreach have more than doubled in the past few years, but the park is remote, and that remoteness is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a two-hour drive from San Francisco to Fort Ross each way, and people either love that twisty cliff-hanging drive along Highway One, or it scares the pants off them. Location, and the laws that protect our coastline from development, provide Fort Ross with this pristine natural environment that amplifies its historical beauty, but lacks amenities.

Fort Ross the brand can and should be universal. This virtual Fort Ross travels easily, and we would like it to be well known across the U.S. and Russia through movies, the web, cultural exchanges, etc.

RD: Based on your experience, how many people usually visit Fort Ross annually and how many volunteers are involved in organizing Fort Ross events and maintaining the conservancy?

S.S.: This year’s Fort Ross Festival had close to 3,000 visitors and probably 300 volunteers – we ran out of parking and beer glasses, so a success by any metric.  Annually we only count cars, so it’s difficult to say but at least 75,000 people per year.

RD: What about events?

S.S.: FRC and State Parks hold events at the park every month, covering diverse topics such as natural and cultural history, arts and music. Everything from Seaweed Forays to Plein Air workshops, Alaska Native Day, Kashia Day, and of course our Fort Ross and Harvest Festivals.

RD: Do visitors change their perception of U.S.-Russia relations after they are exposed to Fort Ross?

S.S.: I believe that a day spent at Fort Ross, especially if you are lucky to have our bilingual Hank Birnbaum as your guide, will forever warm your heart to Russia and Russian America.

RD: How do you see Fort Ross in 10-20 years?

S.S.: Fort Ross needs a few key pieces of infrastructure to become its best self. We need a bigger, newer, and more inclusive museum, a kitchen where we can feed a hundred people, and a dormitory or cabins so that visitors, especially students, can spend a few days at the park studying marine ecology or history, or running a workshop, all without leaving the park.

This would fundamentally change the park dynamic. People want to settle in and stay, to wake up to the unique smells and sounds of this place or to take that early morning walk to the historic cemetery, but it’s nearly impossible given the lack of infrastructure. This can be done without impinging on the park’s atmospheric beauty.   

The Q&A was initially published in Russia Direct’s special project “U.S.-Russia Shared Frontiers.”