Field of Science

Cutting Down Trees to Save the Forest

It took me a while to understand the concept of ecotourism. When I signed up to spend a year with the just-emergent Great Baikal Trail organization from 2003-2004, I honestly picked it for reasons unrelated to its mission: building nature trails.

Baikal is the world's largest (by volume) and deepest lake, with 20% of the world's fresh water and a dizzying array of species found nowhere else (some of them very tasty, I have to admit). It's an incredible place to visit, and I feel lucky to have spent so long there (for reasons, read this and this). It is also one of the world's more pristine habitats, by virtue largely of being in the middle of Siberia. However, the region will eventually develop, and the question is how.

GBT operates on a If-You-Build-It-They-Will-Come principle: namely, if the right infrastructure is put in place, an industry built on tourism will develop, displacing the most likely alternative possibility, which is logging and paper mills (both of which are necessary activities, but would be a shame to see in the Baikal area).

More importantly, if the tourism economy is based on the local natural wonders, there is strong economic pressure to maintain Baikal in its pristine state. It might stay more pristine if all the humans moved elsewhere, but that's not likely to happen. For one thing, if nobody lived there and nobody visited, who has the motivation to maintain the Lake?

The Great Baikal Trail runs summer trail-building programs. An eco-trail is not just any rut in the ground, but requires sophisticated engineering (to prevent, among things, erosion). GBT has been running for over half a decade now and has built up considerable expertise. If anybody is interested in volunteering on a two-week trail project, look them up. Since the tourism economy is still nascent, this also represents one of the few opportunities for non-Russian speakers to travel extensively in the region.

P.S. If there are any Russian speakers reading this, please check out my new 5-minute experiment in Russian.

(for once, photographs are my own)

No comments: