The Future of Wild Places in China: Experiments in Private Management?

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Published on December 14th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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(Editor’s note: Charles Bedford, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, is living and working in China for the next year and will be writing about conservation issues there. Read all his posts.)

A couple posts back I noted the similarities between Potatso (Pudacuo) National Park in Diqing, Yunnan and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The parallels are quite striking. Recently, I visited another protected area that is a little different — Haba Snow Mountain Nature Reserve. It might be an example for the future of managing China’s wild places.

The 2,500 official nature reserves in China can be managed by any level of government, get a sort of “charter” from the national government, are generally off-limits to most human uses, and cover about 15 percent of the land area of the country.

They can be as developed for human observation — like Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, or Yosemite National Parks in the United States — or as little visited, patrolled and enforced as a U.S. Bureau of Land Management Area of Critical Environmental Concern (that is, not at all, usually).

Haba is a 17,500 ft tall mountain that sits on the north bank of Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was formed by the upthrust of the Asian plate from the collision of the Indian subcontinent, which happened gradually enough that the Yangtze River carved an 11,000 foot canyon between it and its sister mountan on the south bank, Yulong Mountain.

Haba is pretty remote — about a 7-hour drive from Lijiang, Yunnan (which has a big airport) on windy (but good) roads. Haba is a farming village nestled into the eastern flank of the mountain that is at the first stage of developing a tourism economy. They have decent small hotels and hostels here, some rudimentary, but quite good. There are restaurants and a service that will horse-pack your gear up to a mountaineering hut at 12,500 ft. From there, you can hire a guide to take you up to the peak across a glacier and peer down to the Yangtze far below.

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Zhang Shuang, the director of The Nature Conservancy’s China program, told me that, when he came here to climb this peak 3 years ago, there was a very small hotel in the town and nothing else, and no mountaineering hut. This place is now on the map for people who want what I would call a taste of the alpine, or a mini-mountaineering experience.

The downside to this is that the development of the base camp has not taken the local flora and fauna into account — fuel wood is cut from the reserve, the development (base camp) inside the reserve itself is technically prohibited by the National Nature preserve law, and the owners/managers of the hut are focused on building a business — without a lot of thought on preservation of this natural place.

Shuang was quite surprised to see the change over 3 years and sought out the owner, a clever entrepreneur from the village below, to better understand what his vision is for the future. Since it was rainy, we all had a whole morning to find out about the owner’s passion for this place and his desire to bring people to it in a way that would not ruin the experience.

Shuang talked with him about ways to decrease the use of fuel wood and take the pressure off of the forests and ways to educate the tourists about what they are seeing here. The guy is clearly a very motivated and smart businessman and understands the connection between his economic activity and the ecological health of the area. We’ll see how this experiment in protected-area management turns out — essentially, this is management by a private (and not particularly formally licensed) contractor as opposed to the Potatso government-run model.

The future of China’s wild places rests with these type of experiments.

(Image 1: View of Tiger Leaping Gorge in China, with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the left and Haba Snow Mountain Nature Reserve on the right. Credit: ZiCheng Xu/Wikipedia through a Creative Commons license. Image 2: Haba Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, China. Credit: Charles Bedford/TNC.)

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