Historic Russian settlement at risk in California

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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.

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