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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Striving to Conserve World's Oldest Lake

USHKANYA PAD, Eastern Siberia -- Rain dripped through a torn plastic sheet stretched across the lean-to, soaking a few fish hanging with mouths agape and turning the ground to a muddy mess. Hank Birnbaum, 35, Colorado-born and California-bred, turned up the collar of his soiled jacket and spread his arms wide. "Welcome to Bermuda," he said with a rueful smile. If World Bank consultants staying at $300-per-night hotels represent one end of the West's aid spectrum, Birnbaum surely holds down the other extreme. After several years of coordinating Russian-American exchange programs for a San Francisco non-profit organization, Birnbaum signed on for the ultimate in grass-roots humanitarian aid. He is a full-time, $13-a-month forest ranger in a roadless, isolated corner of the Pribaikalsky National Park in Siberia. "I just have my own inner need to be here," Birnbaum said. Park officials said they were delighted to hire Birnbaum, hoping American attitudes toward nature conservation would rub off on other rangers. The national park on Baikal's shore was formed only in 1986, and many locals ? including quite a few rangers ? continue to regard the territory as a handy hunting reserve. "When my colleague sees ducks flying past, he says, 'Look, meat!'" Birnbaum said. Birnbaum expected to spend the spring and summer living in a log cabin in this beautiful spot, greeting hikers and watching for forest fires. But during the winter, the cabin was set on fire and destroyed. Park officials believe the culprit was a ranger who had been fired for hunting. Birnbaum acknowledges there's "a lot that's frustrating" in Russia. "People take a lot of holidays, they find a lot of reasons to work slowly and take days off," he said. Rather than clean the trash from a small area, they spend hours discussing grand projects for a park-wide cleanup ? or propose leaving the trash for volunteers who come each summer, actually wanting to work. "But people here need each other, and the simple things are important, and you have to work to get the simple things," Birnbaum said. "In America, so much of life is in the fast lane." In 1988, Birnbaum met a Russian ecology activist who is now his wife. But she prefers life in San Francisco to the lakeside mud of Baikal. Birnbaum, too, said he appreciates America more now. But for the moment, he is determined to stay at least one year. Among other things, he said, he is committed to some of his colleagues in the park who are also determined to save the beauty and cleanliness of Baikal. "The economic situation isso desperate right now that to work with people here who don't have economic motives as primary ? that's a step in the right direction," he said. "And it's surprising for them to meet an American who's not here to make money."