From the heights of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the foot of the Great Wall outside Beijing, China is trialing operations that will officially go into effect at 10 national parks in 2020. These much-loved locations will be the showcase for China’s “ecological civilization,” or the government’s vision for a sustainable relationship with the environment.
On Sept. 26, the State Council and the Party’s General Office — China’s highest level of decision-making bodies — published the Overall Plan for Building a National Park System. While the plan still lacks detail, it shows that that the management of national parks and nature reserves is in for a major overhaul.
Park boundaries redrawn
China abounds with national forestry, geology, wetlands, and marine parks, all of which are overseen by different bodies.
Tang Fanglin, director of the State Forestry Administration’s Kunming Survey and Design Institute, said that a new dedicated body will take the lead in creating standards for national parks and overseeing their management. This means that existing parks that meet the standards will be absorbed into the new system, while others will have to be redesignated.
Tang explained that because national parks represent the country as a whole, high standards must be maintained: Too many parks — or parks of a low standard, though this standard has yet to be defined — would reflect poorly on China. “We’ve carried out an initial review to identify places suitable for national park status, and we estimate that there will be no more than 100,” Tang said.
Yang Rui, a professor of landscape architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that some of the national parks designated by provincial governments or government agencies are of little benefit to either the environment or the public; instead, they exist principally to make money through tickets sales to tourists.
Yang believes national parks would be better-run by the central government rather than lower levels of government. However, it’s still unclear how exactly the national park management body will function.
Protection before tourism
China’s official national parks should be responsible primarily for the protection of valuable landscapes and authentic and complete ecosystems, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global body that focuses on the environment and sustainability.
The proposed changes do not bar commercial activity from within the park, but where it occurs it must not conflict with park functions such as scientific research, education, and leisure. Existing mines and industry will be closed and development will be banned. The new national parks will come under “redline” management, which supposedly grants stricter protections.
These changes are designed to address the damage caused by commercial activities such as mining and development, practices that have persisted for years in many nature reserves. Although reserves covering 20 percent of China’s land area have been established by various levels of government, a lack of coordination has compromised environmental protection within them.
The Qilianshan National Nature Reserve, for example, was criticized this year by both the State Council and the Party’s Central Committee for excessive commercial activity — namely, 52 illegal mining operations.
Peng Kui, a program manager of the Ecological Conservation and Community Development Program at the Global Environment Institute, a Beijing-based nonprofit, said it’ll take time before a balance emerges between the principle of “strictest protection” and pressures for economic development and tourism.
And while national parks will be run in the public interest, it’s still unclear whether this will mean a reduction in the much-maligned high entry costs. Back in 2014, for example, the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC) named Zhangjiajie in central Hunan province as a candidate for national park status, but the park balked at the requirement for lower entry prices and declined the designation.
There is also concern that lower ticket prices might increase tourist numbers to unsustainable levels, while limiting tourism in the face of high demand could lead to park staff and touts manipulating prices.
Managing park residents
Alongside tourism, another key issue is managing the need for conservation with the communities of people that already live in the parks.
The proposal indicates that a tailored approach will be taken. Those in key conservation areas are likely to be moved elsewhere, while people dispersed around the parks may be gathered in concentrated settlements.
Peng notes that national parks are home to many people, some of whom are already an integral part of the park. While the thorny issue of relocation is left largely unaddressed, Peng thinks that the proposal for “community management systems” is a major step forward, as this will encourage residents to sign conservation agreements and involve them in the establishment and running of the national parks.
Reallocation of land and resources
The natural resources in China’s trial national parks, including forests, mountains, and grasslands, are currently owned by the central and provincial governments. But this is set to change: At some undefined point, ownership will be transferred solely to the central government.
With the state taking possession of collective lands, it is expected that current landowners will sign leases to continue their tenure under the management of the new national parks body. The government, for its part, has committed to full consultations with the current landowners.
The transfer of resources from local to central government without any direct compensation or benefit is expected to cause conflict between the central and provincial governments. Although the proposal includes an improved mechanism for ecological compensation, it does not specify who will benefit from this.
Reserves still protected
Tang of the forestry bureau told chinadialogue that the national parks system isn’t just about the creation of new parks — it will also be a system for managing both the parks and the nature reserves, with the latter now being run by state or provincial forestry administrations. This means that other forms of nature reserves won’t be replaced by the new system, and that forestry, wetland, and geological parks will all enjoy continued protection.
Ten years ago, Dr. Xie Yan, China chair of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, proposed using “nature reserve” as a single term for all of China’s natural protected areas. In response to the government’s recent proposal, she said she was “excited” and described the plan as “very suitable for China’s circumstances.”
Xie added that key aspects of the nature reserve law she and her colleagues promoted in 2012 and 2013 — such as strong protections, centralized management, and considerable state investment — are reflected in the new proposal.
This is an original article by chinadialogue and has been published with their permission. It can be found on their website here.
Editor: David Paulk.