FEW wooden shacks huddled together on a wind-swept promontory mark the only sign of human habitation for miles along this western shore of Lake Baikal. Falcons wheel overhead in search of prey while deer forage in the forests beyond.
Here park ranger Vladimir Ignashev and his wife Natalya lead a life of almost pristine isolation, watching for fires in the forested slopes, feeding the deer in harsh winter weather, exchanging an occasional radio message with the headquarters of Pribaikalsky National Park in Irkutsk.
But now Vladimir and Natalya have taken on a new role - as hostelers to small groups of American and European ecotourists who come here in search of spectacular vistas untouched by man. They proudly show off their ``luxe cabin,'' offering the simple comforts of beds, blankets, and a wood-burning stove that valiantly tries to hold off the chill. A wood-fired sauna is being repaired. Their pride is a new brick-walled flush toilet.
Under hard economic times, Russia can no longer afford to keep up the vast system of nature preserves and national parks maintained over more than eight decades. Strapped for cash, the nature conservation organizations are looking for help. Ecotourists are providing small infusions of cash for parks and preserves. Beyond that, the conservation groups are hoping for aid from international organizations, both private and governmental.
Up until recently, the network of zapovedniks, or nature preserves, was sealed off from any human use, with the exception of small teams of scientists. Many Russian scientists continue to insist that these areas remain totally wild.
But economic pressure has led a few preserves, among them Baikal's Baikalo-Lensky Preserve, to conduct an experiment, allowing in small groups of ecotourists who are ready to accept more rugged conditions. The preserve has now opened three hiking routes, led by rangers, into its territory.The national park, which stretches along a quarter of Baikal's shoreline, is far more open to tourism and is eagerly pursuing ties with foreign ecotourism organizations to bring in visitors. With the help of the Sierra Club, park officials and rangers have gone to the United States and Canada to study the park system there.
till even ecologists who support these efforts caution against over-optimistic expectations. ``Ecotourism is not a panacea,'' says Yvgeny Simonov of the Center for Bio-diversity Protection at Russia's Socio-Ecological Union (SEU).
Even greater hopes were lodged in potential assistance from foreign-aid donors, both private and public, to help rescue Russia's nature conservation system. More than two years ago, the SEU authored a proposal, in cooperation with the Institute for Soviet-American Relations in Washington, to ``save the zapovedniks.''
But the response was disappointing. ``We were naive enough to consider that after evaluating this study, the zapovedniks would get something in terms of resources and training,'' Mr. Simonov says. ``Instead we got three or four more reports.''
Indeed, while the SEU estimates that the reserves have received about $100,000 in support, mainly from international private donors, the World Bank has spent almost $750,000 already on two studies, including one now being conducted on the potential for ecotourism. The US Agency for International Development meanwhile funded a similar study that concluded early this year.
Nature-conservation officials are frustrated with meeting visiting Western consultants while waiting in vain for real support to meet their needs. ``All the time new people are coming and they just trace each others' steps,'' says Irina Dyatlovskaya-Birnbaum, assistant director of San Francisco-based Baikal Watch.