IRKUTSK, RUSSIA — SO venerated is Lake Baikal that many along its shores call it a "sea" and regard it almost as a living relative.
Baikal's size and surroundings alone make it deserving of special recognition. Wedged between mountain ranges, the lake isn't particularly wide - about 50 miles at its broadest point - but it stretches for almost 400 miles. And much of its mountainous shoreline is unspoiled, covered by dense pine forests.
Yet to fully understand why such an awesome mystique surrounds the lake, one must fathom what lies beneath its surface.
Baikal is estimated to be 25 million years old, making it the world's oldest lake. More than a mile deep in some places, it contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water - more than all North America's Great Lakes combined. It also has about 1,500 animal species that can be found nowhere else on earth.
The peaceful surroundings give an impression that Baikal is far removed from the problems Russia has had in transition to a market economy. But those trying to preserve the lake for future generations say it is on the front line in the battle between development and the environment.
"The lake is unique and its beauty should be passed on to future generations. Unfortunately the lake is now threatened by pollution," says Vladimir Arsentiev, chairman of the Ecological Committee of the Irkutsk Regional legislature.
More than 100 industrial plants, many situated along the lake's numerous tributaries, are pouring untreated waste into Baikal, while others belch toxins into the air, causing acid rain. Between 1986 and 1989, the amount of polluted water grew threefold - from 66 million cubic meters to 198 million cubic meters, according to data compiled by environmentalists.
Those figures are still relatively low in comparison to pollution levels in many North American lakes. Nevertheless, the trend must be reversed soon, otherwise long-term damage could be done, preservationists argue.
"Baikal is the greatest natural heritage of our motherland and its natural beauty must be protected. We must not allow it to become polluted," says Marina Khamarkhanova, chairwoman of the Baikal Fund, one of several groups trying to defend the lake's ecological interests.
Preservationists want to close down the worst polluters, especially two paper mills. One is the massive Cellulose Paper Plant located in Baikalsk, on the lake's southern shore, while the other is a smaller mill east of the lake on the Selenga River.
In 1987, the then-Soviet government acted to protect Baikal, issuing a decree that banned logging near the lake. It also ordered the Baikalsk cellulose plant to be retooled for less environmentally harmful purposes by the end of 1993. Given the economic crisis in Russia, however, nearly everyone says there's little chance the cellulose plant will meet its conversion deadline. "Of course, there is no money to achieve anything," says Mr. Arsentiev.
Government leaders in the Irkutsk Region, which borders the lake on the West, say they are doing everything possible with their limited resources to help preserve Baikal. The government, they point out, is helping power plants convert from coal to gas in order to reduce toxic air emissions.
But the preservation debate is not such a simple matter to the politicians. For them, introducing stringent preservationist measures could have adverse political consequences. Closing the cellulose plant, for example, would devastate the economy of Baikalsk, a town of about 20,000.
Perhaps because of the possible political ramifications, government leaders do not appear to be pressuring the cellulose plant to meet the 1993 deadline. Some even complain the plant is the target of unfair criticism.
"This factory is talked about more than others, but it's not the only problem," says Viktor Makarov, vice chairman of the Irkutsk regional legislature. "Foreign companies look upon it as a competitor and therefore are trying to close it down."
The Baikal dilemma is made more difficult for officials because of Russia's economic collapse. Politicians in the Irkutsk region, like their counterparts throughout the country, say they are struggling to keep the lid on popular discontent caused by spiraling inflation and the drop in industrial production.
Officials in Irkutsk are quick to complain about their inability to win more economic decisionmaking authority from the central government in Moscow - just like officials in Novosibirsk, Omsk, and other Siberian cities. But Irkutsk, almost 3,000 miles east of Moscow, is in a worse position to solve its problems than most regions, they say.
"The regions closer to Moscow can more readily exert influence and, thus, it is easier for them to solve their problems," says Mr. Makarov.
Irkutsk is less industrialized than other Siberian areas and lacks arable land. The region's agricultural yield is enough to meet only 50 percent of the local population's needs, and there is a shortage of consumer goods, Makarov says. Given the circumstances, officials could be tempted in the future to turn to Baikal, the region's biggest economic asset.
Makarov and others insist the government will refrain from increased exploitation of the lake's natural resources, even if the economic crisis grows worse. They also vow to limit tourism. "It looks safe," Makarov says, "but it can cause a lot of environmental damage."
In spite of the politicians' pledges, preservationists still fear for the lake. "If we didn't have reason to be concerned, then we wouldn't exist," says Ms. Khamarkhanova. "There are a lot of private businessmen around who are only concerned about making money.... It is still possible that Baikal could be sold out someday.
"Baikal can be profitable and still keep its natural beauty," she continued, "but during this transition to a market - when all the old structures have been destroyed and have not been replaced by new ones - Baikal is vulnerable."