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The governor of southwest China's Yunnan province, Qin Guangrong, has recently found himself compared to U.S. conservation greats such as President Theodore Roosevelt for leading a movement to create national parks.
Saturday, Guangrong will sign an agreement with The Nature Conservancy, a globally influential group, to design and create up to 10 new parks in China. The event will be held as part of the National Governors Association conference in Salt Lake City this weekend, which Guangrong is also attending for talks on economic relationships.
The agreement will aim to increase the number of national parks in China tenfold, adding to the one, 4-year-old Pudacuo Park, also in the Yunnan province.
"He's ground-zero," said Charles Bedford, The Nature Conservancy's deputy managing director for the North Asia region. "For him to get sign-off from the national government, and then for him to ask us to help design that network is big news," Bedford said.
He explained that China's system of conserving nature and using it for tourism and education is only recently maturing. The national government has created mostly "nature reserves," which are protected but not accessible to humans. "As a result, no one cares about those places, and no one really knows they're there which misses the point," he said.
The difference between a "nature reserve" and a national park is that the latter not only protects the land, but creates interest in the environment through education and tourism, including things like trails, interpretive signs, information booths and handouts.
As a group experienced with the fostering of conservation and building national parks across the globe, The Nature Conservancy will act as a sort of general consultant to Guangrong as the projects commence.
The nature parks in Yunnan will be modeled after those Utahns are familiar with, similar in size and organization to Yellowstone or Canyonlands. In fact, Bedford, who works out of Beijing, says that Yunnan's environment is comparable to that of Utah except more tropical.
All in all, Bedford says that this is a huge step for a still developing country that hasn't yet embraced conservation.
"This is different than the typical news out of China about pollution or economic growth ... . I hope it says that China is not the monolithic threat of economic growth that we perceive it to be: it's a more complex and interesting place that is worth going to."
Roosevelt, president from 1901-1909, doubled the number of U.S. national parks during his presidency to 10, creating a legacy of conservation that served as a foundation for the nation's 58 national parks (five of them in Utah). The Nature Conservancy hopes what is beginning in Yunnan province lays a similar foundation in China.