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Sitting here, watching the impossible happen all around, I have Fort Ross on my mind.

The news is that the state will "close" Annadel (however THAT could be accomplished!) as well as General Vallejo's old "Castle in the Wilderness," the Petaluma Adobe. It's hard not to be fearful that the oldest and most important historical site north of San Francisco Bay may well be next.

The fate of the Russian fort has been a concern most of the summer. There's even been a couple of Fort Ross "jokes," if you can call them that, like the comment made by a friend whose pragmatism outweighs her sense of history. "If they close Fort Ross," she says, "We will lose the best free restroom stop between Jenner and Sea Ranch."

That's one way to look at it.

In a more serious vein, historians from at least two nations look at it as a cultural imperative.

They believe that Fort Ross Historic Park is far too important to close. And the fact that it appears to be on the short list (whatever and wherever that "list" is) means that "saving" Fort Ross — that is keeping it open — has become a cause c??re.

I know that California's parks, particularly its historic parks, are all unique. But Fort Ross' importance reaches way beyond Sonoma County and even California's history.

This southernmost outpost of Imperial Russia, dating back two centuries — the earliest north of San Francisco Bay — has been telling its remarkable stories to visitors since 1903, when the state took possession of its weathered buildings, even then nearly 100 years old.

The stories from the Russian years at Bodega Bay and Fort Ross (1809-1841) involve a cadre of botanists, naturalists, agronomists, archeologists, artists and even a future saint.

Robin Joy, the park's interpretive specialist who has spent more than a decade on the staff, describes her reaction to the threatened closure list as "in shock."

Joy has her own list, reciting with pride all the factors that make Fort Ross stand out from every other park on the North Coast: Its status as a national monument and as the only Russian settlement in the contiguous United States; the continuous stream of foreign visitors, including Russians and native Alaskans with Kashia Pomo descendants; its place as the site of the first windmill, the first glass windows, the first European varietal grapevines, the earliest shipbuilding and the botanical "discovery" of the California poppy.

It also was home to the lengthy stay of a Russian priest who would become St. Innocent in the Orthodox Church; the archeology project of the University of California; untold numbers of school overnights, and for the kids' part — far and away the finest cannon presentation in the state.

Her list is long. It's no wonder the possibility of closure has caught the attention of the Russians, prompting a visit from the Russian ambassador in late August and a letter to the governor setting forth the official interest of that nation.

RTR Planet, a Russian international television and radio broadcasting service, last week visited the fort to alert the 75 percent of urban Russians it claims as viewers and listeners to the threat. The Fort Ross visit will be broadcast on the Russian channel today.

Press Democrat Poll

What type of warning did you receive about last October’s fires? (Multiple responses allowed)

Official alert on my landline: 5 percent

Official alert on my cellphone: 17 percent

Neighbor warned me: 14 percent

Family member or friend warned me: 28 percent

Police or fire came to my home to warn me: 5 percent

None: 43 percent

Don’t know: 1 percent

In the future, how would you like to be notified about a fire or other impending disaster?

Phone call: 31 percent

Text message: 30 percent

Email: 1 percent

Air raid siren: 28 percent

Other (specify): 7 percent

Don’t know: 3 percent

Do you think Sonoma County is more prepared today to warn you about fires or disasters than it was last year?

Yes: 54 percent

No: 31 percent

Don’t know: 15 percent

SOURCE: The Press Democrat Poll/David Binder Research

Joy, along with the many volunteers who are members of the extremely active Fort Ross Interpretive Association, are hoping that Russian businesses and individuals will support the association's contingency plan. They hope to keep the visitors' center open, the artifacts protected and the necessary support systems, like lights and water (and those precious restrooms) in place, should worse come to worst.

The idea that "foreign aid to California may be necessary is embarrassing," Joy said.

The importance of Fort Ross to Sonoma County's billion-dollar tourist industry cannot be overlooked. A study by the Fort Ross association showed that each visitor to the fort leaves $67 in tourist income with county businesses.

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN fascinated by the global — or at least, western hemispheric — view of Fort Ross. It played an important role in the "China Trade," the circle of North Pacific commerce around the turn of the 19th century that sent ships from Britain, France, Russia and the United States on trade routes that included China, Japan, the Hawaiian islands, Alaska and Russia and, by way of Fort Ross, the reluctant Spanish, who claimed all of California.

All were hunting precious sea otter furs. (The Spanish considered all foreign ships pirates, having declared California off limits to foreign trade, but their defenses were weak, and many of the fur traders were smugglers as well.)

When the first Russian emissary, Nikolai Resanov, sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1806, the Presidio there was the northernmost outpost of Spanish California.

Resanov was a favorite of Empress Catherine the Great who saw him as a kind of missionary to bring the "Russian Way" to the savages of North America.

At the time, Russia had a toehold, little more, on the continent with a tenuous settlement on Kodiak Island (Sitka), a trading post of the Russian American Fur Trading Company. The post was important to a trade in which otter pelts were highly valued by the Chinese, but it was a long, long way from Russia and in dire straits in 1806. Supply ships either were not dispatched or sank. There was no agriculture and people were dying of scurvy for want of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Ironically, it was an American, Joseph O'Cain, captain of the Enterprise, who kept Sitka alive, bringing supplies and striking a deal to take Aleuts to hunt otter in exchange for furs.

The year that Resanov came to California to look for agricultural land as well as an otter hunting port was something like a year of destiny in the North Pacific. The British fur trader Alexander MacKenzie had reached the Pacific Coast of Canada a dozen years earlier and Americans Lewis & Clark were nearing the mouth of the Columbia River. Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia, the first U.S. settlement on the West Coast, would not be established by John Jacob Astor's fur trading company until 1811.

Unaware that a subtle shift in the power of nations along the Pacific Coast was under way, Resanov came to sweet-talk the Spanish into selling land on San Francisco Bay to the Russians. Needless to say, the effort failed, but the scant military might at the Presidio — legend has it that the Spanish fort had three cannon and two wouldn't fire, and that in order to fire a diplomatic salute to the Russian ship, the commandant had to borrow powder from his visitors — was a clue that the area north of the bay was indefensible,

So, despite the Spanish refusal to deal with Resanov, the direct result of his visit to San Francisco was the establishment of Fort Ross.

In 1809, another Russian ship, captained by a peg-legged adventurer named Ivan Kuskov, dropped anchor in Bodega Bay, which he named Rumiatsev. He built a shanty town and spent a year exploring for a permanent site. Kuskov's arrival signaled the end of the North Coast's "ancient history" and the beginning of the European incursion

Kuskov's scouting parties chose a site on a rocky promontory seven miles north of the river the Russians named Slavianka, meaning "little Slavic maiden." The site was defensible from three sides, the idea being that the farming would take place at three inland sites, which were eventually established on the river (using American geography) at the mouth of Willow Creek, at Bodega and in Green Valley.

In 1812, when the building project began, there were 25 Russians, about 100 Aleut otter hunters and several "kanakas" — Hawaiian men — at the outpost. By its peak, with the inland farms operative, which was about 1822, Joy estimates that there were 246 people living in and near Fort Ross — more, she points out, than San Francisco at that time.

The Russians stayed 29 years, during which the Spanish (and later, after a war of independence, Mexicans) scrambled to explore and settle their Frontera del Norte to curb Russian expansion.

In 1841, Russia made another overture — to the Mexican government — to purchase land and was soundly denied. They sold their fort to John Sutter — a Swiss immigrant who had empire-building plans in the Sacramento Valley, and went home. Sutter never paid for his purchase. But that's another story.

THE STORY NOW is how to keep Fort Ross Historic State Park open. This has been only a partial list of good reasons. There's another that comes with a heavy dose of irony.

There is a public meeting next Saturday in San Francisco to make plans for the Fort Ross Bicentennial Celebration.

The fort will be 200 years old in 2012 — the first site to celebrate a bicentennial in this area, Joy is quick to add — and organizations involved are getting ready for the big event.

When I mentioned this to another state parks employee last week, she gave a hollow laugh and said, "Well, they can still celebrate, I guess."

But if the state carries out its plans to close 100 parks and Fort Ross stays on the hit list, we can celebrate, all right. But we might not be able to go in.

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