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China Pilots Its First National Park System

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Leadership & Transparency
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In an effort to promote its vast, beautiful landscapes, the Chinese government announced a plan for the country's first national park system earlier this month.

Chinese officials will set up trial national parks throughout the country for the next three years on an American-influenced initiative. Officials will study the U.S. park system as a cornerstone example of how a country can benefit both naturally and economically from creating national parks.

China, the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people, deals with major air pollution control issues, particularly in urban areas where the dense cities and power plants create a powerful and dangerous smog. With a population that’s doubled since 1965, it’s understandable to see why Chinese officials have their finger poised to hit the red button on almost all environmental issues.

The new program is moved along by a collaboration between China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Chicago-based nonprofit Paulson Institute. The groups plan to push the already-protected areas to a new level of watchfulness. Paulson and the Natural Resources Defense Council intend to increase the level of oversight and management in areas such as nature reserves, world heritage sites, forest parks and geological parks.

While 18 percent of China’s total landmass is protected, “these protected areas are not sufficiently safeguarding China’s rich and unique biodiversity,” Paulson stated in a press release.

In 1872, under President Ulysses S. Grant, the U.S. pioneered the first national park: Yellowstone, the geyser and hot springs paradise of the American West. While Grant got the ball rolling, it wasn’t until the popular, progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, that national parks became a real national treasure. Now, nearly a century and a half since the first U.S. national park was established, China is looking to replicate the U.S. system.

Chinese officials began designating nature reserves in 1956, but under-funding and weak management hindered the protected areas from getting the attention they deserve. Instead of providing conservation, the parks became money-makers and tourist traps for out-of-towners. A report from Nature Conservancy said national parks offer a great “middle ground” between conservation and financial incentives, but perhaps China had crossed that line and left conservation on the other side.

It’s tough to strike the balance, considering the most beautiful, natural areas are the one’s most interesting and appealing to the masses -- making them incredibly hard to maintain. The U.S. has managed great success of this delicate balance by incorporating passionate and hardworking park rangers and managers to oversee the day-to-day abuses to which the land may be vulnerable. Up until now, China had not received the funding to appropriately handle its park grounds responsibly while also collecting a little bit of money for piquing people’s interest.

Chinese officials are looking to turn the tides environmentally. The parks program is the headliner of a group of other initiatives that would greatly benefit China environmentally. The new models include low-carbon industrialized zones, regional carbon-trading schemes, changes in how water and energy are priced, and a system that evaluates officials based on environmental goals, Think Progress reports.

The People’s Republic is the third largest country in the world geographically and is host to spectacular sites deserving of conservation. With 7 of the 30 most populated cities in the world belonging to China, it’s no surprise that greenhouse gas emissions and smog dirty the air in crowded urban areas.

As Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, told the New York Times: “The Chinese government knows the Chinese public needs more and more green space and clean air … China not only needs to fight pollution of air, water and soil, but it also needs to invest in its natural capital.”

Image credit: Flickr/Min Zhou

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington