Russia’s Baikal experts tour Tahoe |

Russia’s Baikal experts tour Tahoe

Though separated by half the world and wide cultural differences, Russia’s Lake Baikal and Lake Tahoe suffer similar problems caused by human use and visitation. But, as different as the languages that are spoken on each shore, the consequences vary.

Through educational research, the Tahoe-Baikal Institute aims to bridge the gap, working to solve the troubles that plague both freshwater ecosystems.

For the last 10 years, the Institute has melded university students from Russia and the United States into an environmental research team that travels to both lake shores over the course of one summer. The team spends five weeks at Lake Baikal and five weeks at Lake Tahoe, helping various scientific missions carry out studies and projects in each region.

“This year we had a lot of applicants, about 60,” said Karen Smallwood, Tahoe-Baikal Institute executive director. “We choose people who show a demonstrated interest in environmental issues and who are interested in pursuing an environmental career.”

Seventeen scholars – seven from Russia, seven from the United States, two from Armenia and one from the Czech Republic – traveled to Baikal’s stormy shores this summer. There, they visited the lake’s worst enemy, a pulp and paper mill, and worked with park rangers to clean up an oil spill on the lake’s southern shore.

Now at Tahoe, the team is working with a variety of agencies on several projects.

Three Russian students have been working at South Shore’s Baldwin Beach, erecting fences to keep beachgoers from trampling the Tahoe yellow cress, a tiny endangered plant found only at the alpine lake.

Speaking through Smallwood’s translations, they talked Wednesday about the differences and similarities of the two freshwater lakes that are situated thousands of miles apart.

“They are two completely different things – Tahoe and Baikal,” said 22-year-old Marina Tsyrenova, of the Republic of Buryatia, an enclave of native people in Russia’s Siberia region. “Tahoe is small, cute, welcoming and sunny. Baikal is more forbidding and real, you could die in Baikal.”

Tsyrenova, a botanist by trade and study, said Baikal has plant species that, like the Tahoe yellow cress, also face the threat of extinction. In Russia, preserves protect those plants by not allowing people to visit the area.

Not that Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater lake, gets much tourist traffic anyway.

“There’s no infrastructure set up for tourists, like campgrounds and public restrooms or visitor centers,” she said. “But the lake’s southern shore is attracting more visitors.”

As boats rumbled past the shore, Tsyrenova identified what she believed to be Tahoe’s most severe environmental danger.

“There are a lot of people here – people walking around, boats, Jet Skis and houses – and that has a big impact on Tahoe.”

The people are the reason why the yellow cress is fading from the Tahoe’s shores, said Victor Insera, of the California Tahoe Conservancy.

“It mainly occupies sandy areas on the south and west shores,” Insera said. “There were 43 sites and now it’s down to 13. The problem is that it gets trampled.”

After fencing off a portion of the beach, Tsyrenova and colleagues Svetlana Filippskaya and Tanya Baksheeva, also from the Baikal region, recorded the amount of yellow cress in the area. Tahoe-Baikal Institute researchers in a later study will determine if the plant is spreading or retreating.

“This plant doesn’t occur anywhere else,” Insera said. “If we lose it here then it’s gone forever.”

This year, the nonprofit Tahoe-Baikal Institute, which is funded through private and public donations, is also studying:

n Policy issues on grazing in the Lake Tahoe Basin and wild horse issues in Nevada.

n Aquatic insects in streams that have been altered by humans as an indicator of the ecosystem’s health.

n Public forest monitoring procedures as it concerns prescribed burning procedures.

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Tahoe-Baikal Institute

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