The chapel at Fort Ross

PD EDITORIAL: Gift preserves Fort Ross, renews county connection with Russia

Several times in recent months, benefactors have stepped up to preserve Sonoma County programs and traditions that were threatened by financial shortfalls — from high school woodworking programs to Santa Rosa's annual Rose Parade.

But never has a helping hand been extended so generously and from so far away as the pledge made this week by a Russian billionaire to save another local landmark, Fort Ross State Historic Park.

Viktor Vekselberg, president and owner of the Russian conglomerate Renova Group and one of the wealthiest men in the world, on Tuesday pledged to contribute up to $1 million a year to keep the financially struggling Fort Ross site open and in good shape.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to close Fort Ross, one of the most popular parks on the Sonoma County coast, because of the state's budgetary challenges. At the time, the state said the park had an annual operating budget deficit of more than $800,000. The state shelved the closure plan, but since Nov. 1, the fort has been open only three days a week. In July, it's scheduled to be open seven days a week.

Vekselberg, who flew by helicopter to visit Fort Ross on Tuesday along with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, has offered to set up the Renova Fort Ross Foundation. The non-profit group will provide money and work with local volunteers to help raise awareness of the fort's historic and cultural importance. Both are not lost on Sonoma County residents who have long understood the fort's significance to this region's history. Founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Co., Fort Ross, derived from the word for Russia Rossiia, served as an outpost for seal and otter hunters and for agriculture. The crops provided food to outposts in Alaska.

With sea otter populations almost gone, the Russians eventually sold the fort in 1841 to John Sutter, the man who founded Sacramento. But by then Sonoma County's Russian roots were clearly established, as was Russia's connection to Fort Ross, which is cherished in that country for its religious and historical significance.

The timing of this gift couldn't have been better as work is already under way in preparing for a 2012 bicentennial celebration of the Russian outpost.

Few counties stand to benefit more than ours from this public-private partnership to shore up the fort and expand the opportunities for public engagement in this historic compound.

Here's to a renewed connection and a new chapter in Sonoma County and Russia's shared history.

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