China’s Quest to Create a National Park System

Few countries boast the unique array of biodiversity and natural beauty as China. China is the fourth largest nation by land area, and is home to various natural ecosystems, including 15% of the world’s vertebrates species and 12% of its plants species. While China is often criticized for its environmental malfeasance due to problems like air and water pollution, the country is aiming to establish a network of national parks by 2030, to protect the nation’s impressive and unique nature.

Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke at the closing ceremony of The International Horticultural Exhibition 2019 in Beijing. In his remarks, he highlighted the essential nature of developing green technologies that are environmentally beneficial and sustainable. This, Li said, was crucial to the further development and progress of the Chinese economy. Li continued, “We will further enhance green cooperation. We will continue to support and follow a multilateral approach, stick to the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, equity and respective capabilities, and actively implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

Recently, the Chinese government has followed the United States model of national park management by centralizing the control over these natural treasures. Professor Ouyang Zhiyun of the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences said, “Protected areas [in China] used to be managed by seven different departments. Now, they are all managed by one department, the National Park Administration. We have the opportunity to establish a cohesive system for protected area management. These reforms will help with aligning goals, reducing conflicts and eliminating administrative redundancy.”

Former Director of the United States National Park Service under President Obama, Jonathan Jarvis, recently took a research trip to Qinghai province in China to observe China’s national parks. Over two weeks he traveled throughout China’s midwestern region, meeting with provincial and local governments to discuss their efforts to develop the National Park system. He described “really positive efforts and also some things that are concerning regarding the conflict between development and conservation.” This dichotomy between breakneck economic development that has been China’s trademark post-1978, and conservation efforts to augment the nation’s sustainability can often cause issues for policymakers. Local officials have to delicately balance generating short-term economic prosperity and creating a sustainable “ecological civilization”, as President Xi described it.

In his blog post upon his return from China, Jarvis wrote, “I have confidence that this effort to create a national park system in China is quite serious and has the support at the very top of the Government.” While there is still a long way to go for the Chinese national park system to reach the maturity of a system like the United States, this top down support from the government will be crucial to propelling the development of sustainable initiatives.

In President Xi’s article calling for the ecological rejuvenation of China, he writes, “A civilization may thrive if its natural surroundings thrive, and will suffer if its natural surroundings suffer.” Here he is closely tying conservation efforts to the broader mission of China’s rise to global prominence. Often during China’s meteoric economic transformation throughout the 1990s and 2000s, critics would point to the environmental degradation of the nation in the form of air pollution among others. Clearly Xi has identified environmental protection as an area that can and should be significantly improved.

I spoke to John Jarvis to get more insight on his recent work in China, and his impression of the country’s developing park system. Now the Executive Director of the Berkeley Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity, he traveled to China’s Qinghai province and the Sanjiangyuan area to evaluate and advise on how to improve China’s conservation efforts and national park development.

John Jarvis meets a community ranger in Sanjiangyuan
John Jarvis meets a community ranger in Sanjiangyuan (Source: The Berkeley Blog)

What were your expectations before your most recent trip to China?

John Jarvis: I worked for the US National Park Service for 40 years, and I was involved with a number of efforts internationally to assist other nations trying to develop national park systems. Not necessarily from my experience 20 years ago, but from my staff who work on international affairs, China had invested in creating a system of protected areas, and there were things they called national parks and we had some parks here in the US who served as “sister parks” with parks in China. Yosemite National Park was sistered with Huangshan Park, which is a place that I visited some 20 years ago but I think the bottom line was that we didn’t see the kind of robust investment from a policy, legal and funding standpoint that would bring China’s national parks up to what I would consider to be a world standard. So when I was invited to come to participate in the forum in Kunming in 2018, what I saw was a significant political statement coming from the very top, from President Xi that they were serious about it this time. I think that made me more interested in actually spending my time there and providing my expertise in helping them. I think, that has continued, China is very serious about making a robust national park system in the next decade.

How does China achieve the balance between economic development and conservation?

Well what was interesting to me when I went to Sanjiangyuan, and since had meetings with a number of Chinese officials, they have stated, and I’ve heard it enough that it must be serious, that they are setting conservation as the priority over economic development, at least for their national parks. We saw that in evidence in that they had shutdown visitation in some of them and the master planning work that they already completed was saying right up front that ecological conservation and environmental standards was going to be the priority. They wanted to get that in place before they promoted visitation, at least heavy visitation, to park units. That is a very good sign and the concept and issue between that so called balance is complicated, very complicated. Obviously China has had a high priority on economic development for a long time so it was actually refreshing to see them at least state politically, that they want conservation to be the priority. Because, frankly, if you’re going to have a real national park system it can’t just be about visitation or economical development and tourism it has to have a foundation in conservation and historical preservation as well.

That’s good to hear.

We met with local mayors and provincial leaders and they clearly had gotten the message that they were now going to be evaluated in terms of their accomplishments and career status based on ecological conservation and not economic development. What’s interesting was they were asking us to help them figure out what that means because most of them had been trained professionally in economic development, which was to build something: a road, a hospital, a library or a school in these remote communities and now they were being challenged with ecological conservation at the same time as improving the lives of the local communities. Frankly they were looking to us to help guide them on how you do that.

Can you tell me more about these conservation metrics that officials could be evaluated on?

At least in the US and in some other what I would consider “mature” national parks systems around the world, like parks in Canada, an initial investment in understanding what the resources are that you’re trying to manage is the start. Sort of a baseline inventory. Then within that inventory you need to set up a monitoring system, something that is evaluating things like water quality, wildlife populations, air quality or exotic plant species, persistence of wetlands, all of those things. Just like you would be monitoring your investment portfolio, you need to be monitoring your ecological portfolio. Managers of these new national parks need to be held accountable to those standards, and report on the quality. In particular in SanJiangyuan, which is the headwaters to the Mekong (Lancang), Yellow and Yangtze rivers, you have 900 million people downstream so maintaining the quality of the ecosystem services in that region is key to the region’s stewardship. If you take care of that, you will probably achieve a lot of your other conservation objectives. Develop a baseline, develop a set of standards for monitoring and then measuring those, report on them, and hold managers accountable, and everything else is subservient to that. In terms of visitor attractions and infrastructure and how you build a regional economy around that, it can work, we’ve seen that in other parts of the world and in the US as well.

What are some Unique challenges to China’s national park development?

Every system around the world has to be adapted to local culture, tradition and conditions, political environment, and financial systems of each nation. The US can sort of lay claim to inventing the national park idea, but I like to say when we shot it around the world, it came back different because it has had to be adapted to each nation and each culture. In China I think a couple things are unique. One is that there is a long history of appreciation of nature in Chinese culture, you can see it in their art and music and particularly amongst the Tibetan people, who have a deep love and reverence for the land. Figuring out how to embrace that, turning it into stewardship at the local level is both an opportunity and a challenge for China in these parks. There are people living in their parks, and that wasn’t the case in the US because we had moved everybody out. Or they had been removed violently or died out from introduction of disease, it’s a very dark period in American history and my advice to China would be to not do that, and to figure out how to incorporate the stewardship ethos of the local indigenous people into the stewardship of the park. I think that that model has been applied in other parts of the world pretty successfully and I’d like to see China do that.

Did you bring up the local stewardship with chinese park officials? How did they react?

I brought it up everyday. It’s in all my writing and it’s a full major recommendation of our team. China has said they want to have national parks with Chinese characteristics. And so what we are suggesting is that is what national parks with Chinese characteristics really are, are national parks that embrace and support the local stewardship with a sort of national overlay. This is new for China. Their national parks have been managed inconsistently, locally, and provincially so until now there’s not really what I would call a system of parks. So we recommend that there needs to be an overarching umbrella policy and law, and obviously some level of central funding to ensure that there is adequate support. But there has to be a lot of support for local stewardship. If they pull that off, I think they have the potential to be welcomed into the world family of park systems.

Can you talk about the natural resources you saw in China?

We didn’t travel into all the different ecosystems of China but in May we were up on the Tibetan plateau, this is an area of very high elevation, between 12,000 and 16,000 ft, it’s very big, 125,000 sq. km. It’s often called the “third pole”. It is really cold. But what was amazing, I had one of my top scientists with me, a conservation biologist from University of California, Steve Beissinger, who does work in protected areas here in the US, and a couple of other folks with long careers in the park service, and we were all very very impressed with the biodiversity. We saw pretty much everything. We didn’t see snow leopards, but we saw pretty much all the big species, wild ass, wild yak, antelope, Himalayan griffons, and we were mostly driving. We saw these vast wetlands and really, I wouldn’t call it pristine because obviously there is a little bit of a lived in landscape there with the Tibetan yak herders and sheep herders, but what we didn’t see was the traditional industrial development, mining and the like. At least within that area things were in pretty good shape. Sort of our recommendation was ‘don’t mess it up, you’ve got it in pretty good shape, let’s not overdevelop it or make any significant changes to it. Preserve what you got.’

What role does Technology HAve in conservation?

We were out on the plateau in Ancai village in Qinghai province. We were meeting with a group of community rangers, who are mostly Tibetan yak and sheep herders. They live in these remote villages and they all have been hired by the park authority to provide a patrol stewardship in the park. They report poaching, mining or other illegal activities. They check on remote nomadic families in terms of their health, so they have both a social and natural resource responsibility. What’s fascinating was I was having a conversation with one of them and I asked him if you’re out there someplace and you see a snow leopard, what do you do?

He pulls out his smartphone and shows me that he has an app with all of the species identified in the park. It is spelled out in Mandarin and Tibetan and he can immediately tap on that and it downloads a GPS location of that sighting. As long as he’s got coverage he can upload it, or go back to his village and upload it. So he and thousands of these community rangers are building this dataset around GPS locations of wildlife with a high degree of reliability because of their local knowledge. In addition, we stopped by a research center there that’s using camera traps. With camera traps, you take a photograph of a species and now with AI, like with a snow leopard you have the potential to do individual identification through spot marking. That kind of data can be extraordinarily important for a home range and protecting a particular species that is perhaps at risk from other activities in the park. I think technology definitely has a role there. I’m not one of those people who are averse to technology, there are things that I don’t like, I think that China needs to make sure we don’t wind up with a lot of drones flying around in the park. I banned them in the United States. But I think technology has a role, and it can advance our understanding of the resources that need to be protected.

This wildlife tracking App you mentioned, does the United stateS have an equivalent?

No. I don’t think we do. There’s this app called iNaturalist. It’s relatively new, it falls under the broad category we call citizen science. Anybody can download iNaturalist and you see any species, an insect, a wolf, or whatever. You take a picture of it and you upload it and its crowdsourced identified. Obviously you have a GPS location on your phone, so it actually being utilized to develop a very broad analytical database for species range and distribution in the US. We have used it in the US national park system when we do bio-blitz, which is a much more intensive 24 hour survey within a national park unit. iNaturalist has been a big partner for us. However, we haven’t really deployed it in the same way that the community rangers are doing it in China.

Anything else you want to highlight about China and their national park system?

The point I would like to make is that China has said politically that they want to have a complete national park system by 2030. Of course China is hosting the convention of biodiversity next year in October 2020, and I would anticipate that China will be announcing sometime in 2020, this sort of trajectory towards having a complete system with actual designation of at least the first slate, and then another slate and then another. They are trying to do what the US did over 100 years, starting in 1916, in just 10 years. This doesn’t surprise me because that’s kind of the way China does things. The bottom line is I really hope they do it. This has enormous potential for China to embrace their national park system as a core of national pride. That’s what we have in the US. A recent Pew Survey showed 86% support for the national parks among the American public. If China can pull that off or anything near that, and make it a core of Chinese pride with conservation as the priority, then that has real implications to biodiversity and conservation. China could emerge as a significant leader in the conservation movement, particularly around the role protected areas play in conservation of biodiversity and climate change adaption in terms of connecting people to nature, in terms of public health, and a whole range of things. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested, want to help and am enthusiastic about this initiative.