About a month ago, I started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. And what I saw surprised me: China.
Blatant commercialism of the parks in the late 19th century — from Niagara Falls to Yellowstone — echoed my experiences in Yellow Mountain, as well as non-natural sites such as Shaolin Temple and Lijiang.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and sacrificed for drinking water for San Francisco, just as the Three Gorges — and the surrounding cultural heritage and towns — have lost out to China’s power demands.
The Native Americans, who were paid to star in a Native American version of “minstrel shows” at Glacier National Park, reflected today’s Chinese minorities (or those dressed up to resemble them) performing minority dances and rituals for paying Chinese tourists.
A toll booth that used to stand at the head of the Grand Canyon’s famous Bright Angel trail reminded me of “hidden fees” charged by parks such as Wulingyuan.
And the US railroad’s once-monopoly of Yellowstone — where expensive hotels, water, and dinners of common canned food were the norm — recalled my journey to Yellow Mountain’s summit, where only memorable part of the hotels and food was the high price.
When it comes to tourism, and the natural world, today’s China has a lot in common with the early history of the US parks system. Like the US then, China’s parks and historical sites are in a “wild wild west” era where decisions about China’s parks are left to local management or government — which often put profits before preservation.
Is it different in today’s China? In some ways, yes. The old hotels and barracks left behind by, say, James Mason Hutchings in the Yosemite Valley, would probably have less of an impact on the land. Compare that to an elevator built into one of Wulingyuan’s delicate sandstone pillars. These may be removed, eventually, but have they already left a scar? (Though, to be fair, we did do major low-tech damage too Â — such as cutting some unfortunate “tunnels” through Giant Sequoias that will never be repaired).
At the same, China has changed so fast — faster than the timeline of the US — as it played catchup with the rest of the world. Yet, natural areas are slow to heal and revive; you can’t just commission a developer to erect a forest within a year, or clean a river.
And then there’s the tricky question of politics. In the US, environmental activists, such as John Muir, helped shape and direct the parks. Though China has a stronger environmental movement, activists do still end up, wrongfully, in prison.
On the other hand, China has something we didn’t: history, such as what’s in Burns’ documentary. They can learn from the national parks of the past Â — and do better. Unfortunately, they may not always choose “better.”
While that’s true for many places in China — natural and historical — there’s still hope. Just recently, China moved to designate its first national park, with a better balance in mind:
Bai, whose agency approved Tangwanghe as the first national park, wants “a balance between conservation and tourism” as China develops a parks system.
There is another park, Pudacuo (it too claims to be the first national park — who knows?) that has avoided kitsch and overcommercialism in favor of conservation:
The official slogan of China’s year of ecotourism is “Be a green traveler and experience eco-civilization.” Pudacuo park serves this goal by requiring visitors to park their cars and tour the park in low-emission buses shepherded by guides such as Yang.
Still, there is some concern that overdevelopment could spoil the natural beauty and dilute the Tibetan culture of Diqing. But local authorities pledge to tread lightly. Logging in the region was halted a few years ago to preserve the alpine forests, and heavy industry is off the table, said Qi Zhala, the Communist Party secretary for Diqing.
What has been your experience in China’s parks? Do you also see parallels with the history of parks in other countries? Do you have hope for the future? I’d love to hear from you.