Will the first national park in China please stand
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
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China designates first of planned national parks
By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
TANGWANGHE, China - Snow-frosted trees, subzero temperatures, precious few people and one-story wooden houses. It sure looks like Siberia - and it was for a generation of Chinese exiled here to labor in logging camps in the late 1960s.
This land close to the Russian border where vast forests were stripped bare to help fuel the communist revolution was named last month as China's first "national park."
The move was inspired in large part by the USA, home to Yellowstone - the world's oldest national park. China's central government is now planning a parks system to curb destruction of the country's most beautiful and biodiverse areas.
While there are still disputes over using the word "national" in a park's name, the new title for the 49,000-acre park in Heilongjiang province in northeast China illustrates the challenges that conservationists face. The swath of red pines is a rare sight after decades of over-logging. Since 1948, the red pine forest area has shrunk a whopping 93.5%, the provincial government estimates.
"The (remaining) virgin pine forests would be cut down without extra protection," says Bai Chengshou, director of nature reserve management at China's Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing.
Bai, whose agency approved Tangwanghe as the first national park, wants "a balance between conservation and tourism" as China develops a parks system.
Tangwanghe National Park is dotted with granite stones weathered over time into strange shapes. Many are named for what they vaguely resemble, such as "drunken tortoise" and "alien guest." The trees, some several hundred years old, include Korean red pine, white birch, larch and Dragon spruce.
Bai says another seven or eight pilot parks will be established in the next three to five years. "If the pilots are successful, we will spread the project nationally," he says.
Great source of timber
This depressed logging town of 40,000 around the new park needs an economic boost. Bans on hunting and logging the past decade have hurt this frontier town carved out of virgin forest in the late 1950s.
Sun Dongwu, 56, recalls that his father came here in 1958, like many residents, as Communist leader Mao Zedong launched his failed "Great Leap Forward" to overtake the Western nations. These pioneers toiled in 40-below temperatures to lay railway tracks and to extract the area's resources. The trees were used nationwide for everything from mine shafts to wooden stools for students.
"The country needed timber to build the nation. We had no idea of environmental protection," says Sun, who now works as a gatekeeper and ticket-seller at the park.
When he worked in the Unity logging camp in 1971, many newcomers didn't survive, Sun recalls.
"They just weren't used to manual labor," Sun says about the generation of urbanites exiled during Mao's cultural revolution to the logging camps in the frozen northeast. "They had bad political backgrounds. It was a punishment to toughen and reform them."
Nearly four decades later, China's Siberia is being transformed.
"Tourism is the best replacement for logging," says Ma Shengli, head of the local tourist bureau who hopes the changes will spark a gold rush to his remote hometown.
Up to 1,000 residents are now involved in tourism, and that could climb to 3,000 by 2010, Ma says. He also wants visitors to more than double from the 160,000 last year. Ma plans to visit Yellowstone in January for tips on park management and development.
However, the main route here requires a 12-hour train ride from the provincial capital of Harbin. In the next two years, the government will build an expressway and an airport to speed the trek.
China already boasts 2,531 nature reserves, scenic and historic areas that cover 15.2% of the country. The USA's 58 national parks cover 3.6% of the nation, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
But China's parks lack funding and a single agency to promote effective management, says Wang Lianyong, a protected areas specialist at China's Southwest University.
As a result, many parks in China stress sightseeing more than environmental protection, because that draws in needed funds.
Bai, of the environmental ministry, says he is applying for part of China's $586 billion economic stimulus package announced earlier this month. About $147 billion of that is earmarked for environmental protection. The central government intends to oversee the national parks to avoid "improper" development by local governments and businesses.
China suffers from a "paper park" phenomenon, Wang says, as competing ministries and local governments approve parks - and sometimes claim the same park. That makes coordination difficult, he says.
At Pudacuo National Park in Shangri-La, a spectacular mix of peaks and pastureland approved by the Yunnan provincial government in June 2007, the staff was surprised when Tangwanghe was named China's "first" national park.
"Our park was the first," Lucy Yu says about Pudacuo.
Yu, a project manager for the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy in Beijing, says the province in southwest China was planning to approve two more national parks by year-end.
The Nature Conservancy has spent 10 years building demonstration projects in Yunnan to preserve nature and benefit local communities. It is home to China's richest biodiversity of plants and wildlife.
"I can't worry about whether we will lose the national park title," says Ding Wendong, deputy manager of Pudacuo. "We can only do our practical work on the ground, and try to introduce international ideas of management."
Ding credits the conservancy with changing local attitudes and methods. He wants to avoid disasters, such as one at the park's Shudu Lake. A local developer had introduced a fish species for tourist anglers that destroyed the indigenous fish.
Bai, meanwhile, warns, "You can't just call yourself a national park. I don't agree with these parks in Yunnan arbitrarily proclaiming themselves national parks."
Academic Wang sees a precedent to these turf wars - a century ago in Canada. "There were conflicts between provincial and federal governments, and the so-called 'national' designation by provincial governments was canceled," he says. "The confusing situation has already occurred in China. I hope one day we will have a unified agency."
Fighting hard to be a national park is the Kanas Geological Park in Xinjiang province: 2.5 million acres of dramatic forests, mountains and lakes, often called "God's backyard."
"Our park is the best in China, and will be even bigger than Yellowstone," says head administrator Tan Weiping, who has applied to Beijing for national park status.
"We welcome U.S. tourists to come here," he says. "And they can bring their tents, too, although we have star-rated hotels."