If You Save It, Will They Come?

China’s New Parks

Last May, Sylvia Ning and her family drove to Laojushan National Park, a 419-square-mile protected area in southwestern China. She wanted her kids to see the park, which was established in 2007, because friends had told her it was beautiful and – for now – largely undeveloped.

Three hours after leaving Lijiang, a city of about one million people in northwest Yunnan Province, the Ning family car rolled into Liming, a sleepy town near a rushing river and bright red sandstone cliffs.

photo of a striking granite and forest landscapecourtesy Alyssa Johnson

The sky was cloudless. The Nings hiked a steep trail leading to the new park’s signature feature: Thousand Tortoise Mountain, a stunning assemblage of sandstone features that vaguely resemble turtle shells. From the summit, the family admired a 360-degree vista. Silence reigned. Wild rhododendrons flowered on nearby hillsides. Chances are good that somewhere in the forests below, about 300 Yunnan golden monkeys, among the most elusive and endangered primates on earth, were lounging on tree branches.

Because she appreciates Laojunshan’s thrilling scenery and tranquility, Sylvia Ning told me later, she was sorry to hear a rumor that the park’s developers may install a tram to shuttle tourists to scenic overlooks. “Whenever places in China are overdeveloped, they get worse,” said Ning, a Taiwanese writer who lives in Lijiang. “I’m worried that if we go back to Laojunshan next year, it won’t be the same.”

The rumor Ning heard is true. In fact, Laojunshan developers may install two trams; one would shuttle tourists to Thousand Tortoise Mountain.

Laojunshan is one of three pilot parks Yunnan is developing with support from The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia-based nonprofit that works in more than 30 countries. “The Nature Conservancy was hoping that Laojunshan would be the Yellowstone of China,” said Anne Castellina, a retired national park superintendent who has visited Laojunshan and other Yunnan parks as a volunteer consultant.

These so-called “national parks” are an experimental hybrid of two Chinese protected-area classifications: “Nature reserves,” which largely prohibit human activity; and “scenic areas,” which allow development and mass tourism. Yunnan’s new national parks probably won’t have golf courses or artificial lakes as some Chinese scenic areas do, but in addition to pristine wilderness areas, the parks may have trams, parking lots, and hotels designed to accommodate tour buses and crowds.

It’s a stretch to call these parks “national,” partly because China does not have the equivalent of the US National Park Service. But Yunnan officials are using the “national park” term anyway, and they hope to open roughly a dozen national parks within the next decade. Yunnanese park planners have studied national park systems in the US and other countries, said one Yunnan official, Yang Fang, who has a master’s degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Management from the University of Hawai‘i. “But in China, you need local collaboration, so the American national park model can’t be directly reproduced.”

American and Chinese conservation experts familiar with Yunnan’s national park campaign express mixed feelings about the endeavor. National parks could theoretically protect the province’s natural and cultural heritage while giving urbanites access to wild nature, just as American national parks have done – or attempted to do – for more than a century. But the experts also note that the American national park model is far from perfect, conservation-wise, and they say Yunnan park officials face unique economic pressures and a complex – some suggest cronyish – system of political patronage. Chinese officials must also grapple with how to engage Indigenous people who live in or near Yunnan’s proposed park boundaries and depend on natural resources for survival.

At this stage, no one in China knows whether Yunnan’s pilot national parks campaign is the beginning of a Chinese national park network. Whatever Beijing decides, the Yunnan campaign highlights emerging land-use tensions in the world’s most populous country. Just as American national parks were for the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, Yunnan’s new parks are bellwethers for what Communist China’s protected areas may look and feel like in the twenty-first century and beyond. A hundred years from now, will Chinese urbanites like Sylvia Ning spend their vacations roaming the backcountry John Muir- style? Or will they, as so many Americans do today, scope stunning scenery from the comfort of passenger seats?

Wen Bo, China Program senior fellow for the San Francisco-based NGO Pacific Environment, wonders if building national park-like infrastructure in some of China’s most biologically and culturally diverse landscapes is the best way to protect biodiversity and provide economic stability for some of the roughly two million Indigenous people living in northwest Yunnan. “The Nature Conservancy has introduced the idea of national parks to government officials in Yunnan, but The Nature Conservancy cannot really control how those officials act,” he told me recently. “The Yunnan government cares to a certain degree about conservation, but not that much. Their priority is tourism, and in China, you have to cash in on natural resources, especially in remote areas, where there are very few other ways of making a profit.”

The story of Yunnan’s national parks project began with a phone call a woman named Carol Fox received about 16 years ago. At the time Fox, who lives in Hawai‘i, was director of program development for The Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific Region. The caller was an eco-minded ski consultant from Colorado, calling on behalf of a Bangkok developer who had considered building a ski resort near Lijiang, China, at a place called Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

China’s Yunnan Province is developing the country’s first “national parks” based on the American model. Can it strike a balance between wilderness preservation, mass tourism, and Indigenous livelihoods?

After surveying Jade Dragon, the consultant, Steve Mikol, decided that building a ski resort there was a “very bad idea.” Building a national park that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) might want to get involved with would be a better option. Was TNC, Mikol asked Fox, interested?

“No way,” Fox said. A consulting firm had just advised the $800 million organization to focus on going “deep,” not “broad,” she told him. “I don’t think there’s any way they would agree to go to a new country!”

But Fox, who had lived in China and speaks Mandarin, changed her mind when she realized that northwest Yunnan includes the upper reaches of four major rivers – Mekong, Yangtze, Salween, and Irrawaddy – and provides ecosystem services for one in ten of the world’s people. Many of the nearly half a million people in the region, who at the time earned less than $80 per year, were under pressure to exploit natural resources through activities like logging and overgrazing. Yunnan struck Fox as an important place to work.

Fox visited Yunnan in 1996 and gave a presentation about American national parks to Yunnan scientists and government officials. In 1998, TNC brought a delegation of high-ranking Chinese officials to Washington DC, where Ed Norton, an environmental lawyer and the father of actor and conservationist Edward Norton, arranged for them to meet his friend, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The Chinese officials also toured Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks.

Soon TNC reps and Chinese officials were brainstorming conservation strategies. At a 1999 meeting in Lijiang, officials from China’s State Development Planning Commission – now the National Development and Reform Commission – reportedly gave “enthusiastic” endorsement to TNC’s proposal for a joint project office with the Yunnan Provincial Planning and Development Commission. The office would coordinate the “Yunnan Great Rivers Project,” which aimed to develop a provincial network of protected areas.

Fox, Norton and Rose Niu, a Lijiang-born environmentalist, began working with Yunnan officials on a “Conservation Action and Development Plan.” The 2001 document, which was later incorporated into a Chinese government five-year plan, stated that Yunnan would develop a “national park pilot program” as a strategy for reconciling conservation with “resource utilization” in ecologically sensitive areas. Laojunshan and a site called Meili Snow Mountain would be “pilot sites for future national park construction,” the plan declared.

The rest is history. In 2002, Fox and company met with then-president of China, Jiang Zemin, who, according to TNC, “acknowledged the importance of the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.” The following year, eight protected areas in northwest Yunnan, including Laojunshan, were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In 2008, China’s State Forestry Administration approved Yunnan as a “Demonstration Province for National Park.”

The Yunnan government outlined its national park strategy in a 2009 memo that opens with an ode to Yellowstone and America’s national park system. The memo stated that Yunnan’s national parks would promote tourism while protecting the region’s biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Now the question is: Will the image be based in reality?

Rose Niu, who served as TNC’s China Program director until 2008, hopes so. Yunnan’s national parks reflect a compromise between conservation and economic development, said Niu, now the managing director of the US-China Program at World Wildlife Fund. Ideally Yunnan would have more nature reserves, she noted, but local officials rely on tourism revenues to sustain municipal budgets, and poor people who live in and around protected areas depend on natural resources for survival. Now that Yunnan’s park project is underway, Niu told me, the province’s biggest challenge will be getting approval from China’s all-powerful State Council. Otherwise, said the Lijiang native and member of the Naxi ethnic group, “these parks will not go far.” In the meantime, Niu said, Yunnan parks officials should protect biodiversity and ensure that park revenues benefit people living nearby.

That’s a tall order, says Dr. Lu Zhi, director of the China-based Shan Shui Conservation Center. Provincial Chinese officials are always tempted to approve development projects in protected areas, she said, partly because China’s central government doesn’t invest as much as it should in protected-area management. The Nature Conservancy staffers were “well intentioned” when they introduced the national park concept in China, Lu said, but if the concept is “legitimized,” provincial officials might approve construction projects in ecologically sensitive areas and claim the projects promote national park development. “China is trying to figure out what fits our situation best, whether it should go for national parks or create its own system,” she said.

Balancing development with conservation in protected areas isn’t a uniquely Chinese challenge, Dr. Lu added. She was thinking of Yellowstone National Park and other “overdeveloped” national parks she has visited in the United States, where economic interests have guided park development since the late nineteenthth century.

The first American national park, Yellowstone, opened in 1872, but Congress didn’t establish the National Park Service until 1916. American and Chinese conservationists say Yunnan’s parks campaign recalls that ambiguous regulatory period when US national parks were established under pressure from tourist-hungry railroad companies.

American national parks have always been managed to promote tourism, not conservation, writes historian Richard West Sellars. A landmark 1918 NPS mission statement proposed a “national playground system,” and throughout the twentieth century American park officials acted more like savvy businessmen than stewards of biodiversity. According to Sellars, between 1916 and 1929, the NPS built about three miles of roads for every mile of trails. As late as 1938, the service had only ten staff biologists, six of whom were funded by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

photo of a rustic looking lodge with writing in Chinese and English, Far Away Hotelcourtesy Mike IvesYunnan officials are eager for area residents to benefit from the parks.

Not even landmark federal laws such as the American Antiquities Act (1906), the Wilderness Act (1964) or the Redwoods Act (1978) made serious dents in the park service’s “capitalistic, business-oriented approach to national parks,” Sellars writes in his 1997 book Preserving Nature in the National Parks. Tourism and economic development remained the park service’s main foci through the 1960s and 1970s, he writes, when under pressure from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the NPS began a slow, stumbling transition toward science-based natural resource management.

What happened in American national parks at the turn of the twentieth century was “exactly like what’s happening in China today,” said Anne Castellina, a former superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park. “A hundred years ago in America, we had this public-private arrangement in order to get people into the parks. Over time the federal government became much more involved.”

But as Castellina and others acknowledge, the analogy isn’t perfect. Chinese conservation biologist Dr. Lu Zhi points out that China has unique population pressures and has already established a lot of protected areas (about 15 percent of total land area, the same as in the US). Rudy D’Alessandro, international cooperation specialist at the US National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs, notes that Chinese provinces are more powerful than US states were a century ago. China could someday have a bona fide national parks system if, say, it had a premier who was a birder, D’Alessandro told me. But Chinese provinces “don’t want to give ground,” he said, and they “probably wouldn’t like it” if their protected areas suddenly fell under the jurisdiction of a Beijing agency. Before a Chinese national park system can take shape, D’Alessandro said, Beijing authorities would need to convince provinces that national parks are in their financial interest. It’s “ironic” that a country many Americans think of as a “monolithic dictatorship” is so “decentralized,” he added.

Doug Morris, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park who has volunteered with Anne Castellina in Yunnan Province, has witnessed that decentralization in Laojunshan National Park. The US Congress strictly regulates the roughly 600 concessionaires who operate in American national parks, Morris explained, and as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, he jokes that he “had to approve the price of a cup of coffee.” In Yunnan’s nascent parks, by contrast, “the relationship between investment companies and park management bureaus seems to be a grey area that reflects more local politics than any provincial standards.”

photo of a man and young child working grain-grinding machinery in a log and stone shedcourtesy Mike IvesPlans include gift shops, village home stays, and local tour guides.

Chinese politics are not necessarily bad for conservation, Morris points out. Laojunshan officials and state-affiliated investors are willing to work jointly on protecting the park’s ecological and cultural diversity. Morris and Anne Castellina tell me they hope the public-private administrative juggernaut will embrace a park-development model that emphasizes wild nature experiences over tour-bus-style tourism, which according to Morris pervades many Chinese scenic areas. He says development around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a “scenic area” near Lijiang that now has a golf course and artificial water features, is a pretty good example of what Laojunshan developers should not emulate.

Laojunshan park officials and investors are reportedly exploring holistic tourism-development strategies. One strategy is teaching local villagers to create home-stay facilities for visiting hikers. Another is training them as tour guides. “If we don’t do things to make those communities richer there will be conflict,” said Wang Shi Hong, deputy manager of the state-affiliated Lijiang Tourism Development, Investment and Management Company.

Park investors like Wang need to make money. Under one proposal, upscale lodging and restaurants would displace Liming’s mom-and-pop noodle shops. Other proposals, and this would irritate nature-lovers like Sylvia Ning, are for trams that would shuttle tourists to Thousand Tortoise Mountain and a gorgeous spot called 99 Dragon Pools.

Odd as it may sound, if developers build trams and tour-bus-friendly infrastructure in Laojunshan, they may in some cases protect the area’s natural resources. If a tram shuttles tourists to 99 Dragon Pools, Doug Morris predicts, “you’ll have busloads of people showing up at the base of the tram, getting transported to the top in large numbers and taking a three-mile walk around the lake. But on the other hand, they wouldn’t harm nature because they wouldn’t stay long enough to harm it!”

As park developers weigh their options, Laojunshan still feels gloriously wild. When I hiked the park over five days last May, I roamed the backcountry and hung out in villages of Lisu subsistence farmers, who account for most of the roughly 11,000 Indigenous people living inside Laojunshan’s boundaries. First I hiked with a tour guide. Then I explored a scenic sandstone ridgeline with a Chinese-speaking American friend. Other than an unstaffed visitor center and trail markers leading to Sun Tortoise Mountain, I didn’t notice any official signage, much less “national park” infrastructure. None of the villagers I met knew they were living in a “national park.”

photo of a gnarled old tree on a rocky outcrop in a canyon with mountains and forests in the background courtesy Alyssa Johnson

At turns, I worried for my safety. Hiking on that sandstone ridgeline one afternoon, my friend and I realized we were stranded without much food or water. (Luckily, a friendly farmer fed us dinner by nightfall.) As I scrambled up steep paths with my Lisu tour guide, he drank a lot of beer. I tried not to imagine what would happen if I were to fall and break a leg. There were no park rangers in sight, and as it turns out, Laojunshan doesn’t have rangers.

The no-ranger thing hasn’t been a problem yet, said Austin Stringham, a 21-year-old American rock climber who runs trips in the park through his new outdoor guide service, Highland Explorations. Stringham, who grew up near Mt. Rainier National Park, told me he has received a warmer welcome from Laojunshan officials and developers than he has in several other Chinese protected areas, where he says developers are chiefly interested in promoting golf courses, theme parks, and other “goofy stuff.”

Chinese tourists who take his rock-climbing tours are typically psyched to experience nature in a new way. Stringham said he and his guides are trained Wilderness First Responders and always carry emergency supplies into the backcountry. But still, Laojunshan’s lack of rangers and emergency rescue protocols “kind of sketches us out.”

Indeed, after visiting Laojunshan, I wondered how such a loosely regulated place could be responsibly managed and marketed internationally. Then again, China has surprised the world before, and the American national park concept crystallized in less than half a century.

American national parks no longer resemble the roadless region that John Muir experienced when he first visited Yosemite Valley. And some famous NPS selling points such as Glacier National Park’s “Going-to-the-Sun Road” strike me and other backcountry lovers as gratuitous. Today parts of Yellowstone National Park, which since 1904 has welcomed nearly 150 million people, remind conservationist Ed Norton of the New Jersey Turnpike. But people still flock to America’s 393 national parks. And for all their drive-by scenery and chintzy gift shops, the parks still inspire conservationists like Norton, who, at 68, has spent a lifetime promoting the parks’ legacy.

Norton agrees with Chinese environmentalists who say development pressures usually trump conservation impulses in China’s protected areas. But he is also cheered to hear that retired National Park Service superintendents are working alongside newly minted park managers in Yunnan Province. “I’m not being rosy about this,” Norton told me. “But the fact that these former NPS people are there means that someone in China wants to figure out how to take the best ideas from our national park system and bring them to China.”

Mike Ives is an American freelance writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His website is: mikeivesetc.com.

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