Yellowstone in China?


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.

How are U.S. perceptions of China sadly out of date? One example lies in how China’s first national park was created.

China has over 2,500 nature reserves, but had no national parks until a few years ago. So The Nature Conservancy worked with the Yunnan provincial government and the Diqing county governor to create China’s first national park — Potatso (Pudacuo) National Park, a Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-sized swath of land in the north part of the state where the government has invested heavily in a classic U.S. national park infrastructure — roads, tour buses, boardwalks, interpretive programs.

It was a bit of a head scratcher — the landscape looked like Yellowstone and so did the roads, lodges, tour buses, stops and signs. But those in charge spent (borrowed) something north of $100m U.S. on the infrastructure and are generating a very large income stream to pay off the loan. The Conservancy worked with them on the signage, design of infrastructure, land plan, etc. Oh yeah, they designated, designed, constructed, and implemented this new national park from what was basically lightly used high-country grazing land in a little over three years.

Here’s the really interesting thing, though: The Diqing county governor — not the central government — was the driving force behind all of this. He set aside the land, he borrowed the money and oversaw the design of the project, he pushed the idea with the Yunnan provincial authorities, and he made the park happen.

He did it so fast that two government ministries in Beijing are still arguing about to whom the park belongs (even though it is administered and managed by the Diqing county government, others want “credit”) and whether it can really be called a national park. Legend has it that the Diqing governor (akin to a county commissioner in the United States) visited Yellowstone and said something like “this is the place” — then came back to Yunnan and made it happen.

Recently, I and officials for The Nature Conservancy in China were in a room with a lot of Chinese government officials — Yunnan parks and wildlife deputies and secretaries, government think-tank directors, and governors’ advisors. They had convened with the Conservancy to talk about how to advance the idea of national parks throughout China.

The group in the room was trying to figure out how to get the national government to embrace their concept of national parks to promote tourism, nature education, conservation and local economic development. It’s a bit like in the late 1990s in Colorado, when Alamosa County commissioners petitioned then-U.S. Senators Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard to champion a new national park at the Great Sand Dunes.

All this is an interesting illustration about how wrong most of our perceptions of China are. We tend to think this is a place with one authoritarian government where all rules flow from the center, Beijing. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in that mistake lies a lesson for conservation in China.

(Image: Potatso National Park, China. Credit: nOr/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. interesting. i live in beijing, and it’s one of the main thing i tell friends and family back home. “China’s not the hulking all powerful government you think it is.” it’s all about the different regional governments jockeying for power.

    Would be interesting to know more about the project. what speed bumps have been encountered? how well protected is the area? how permanent is it?

  2. Awesome site, loads of information and usefull comments to be found! Keep up the good work.

  3. This is really great news. Hopefully more regional governments do similar projects to protect the many of China’s beautiful nature.

  4. Good post, good perspective. Doesn’t always have to be the federal government. In the good old USA, we have State Parks to complement the National Park Service, the Forest Service and our BLM landscapes. Local government open space programs play a HUGE role in conservation.

    Lesser known, tribal parks are some of the best, off-the-beaten-track vacation stoppers. Gems like Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which has it all over neighboring Mesa Verde for visitor experience, and the Wind River Roadless Area which is in a class with any federally designated Wilderness Area, anywhere — to name just three.

    Back to Bedford’s post, why does the picture show a dry desert which looks nothing like Yellowstone, instead of the stunning scenery depicted on the TNC Pudacuo webpage? The first one wouldn’t make me want to cross the street; whereas the latter has me saying, I need to get back to China to check this out.

  5. we just visited there and it was truly magnificent.

    (would you like some better pictures?)

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