China’s Yellowstone

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Image courtesy of Colorful-China

John Muir himself would drop his jaw at the stunning natural beauty of the newly minted Laojunshan National Park, tucked in the southwestern corner of China. Ancient red sandstone cliffs rise from tranquil forests sheltering endangered Yunnan golden monkeys.

But this “gloriously wild” landscape is slated for a questionable facelift, writes Mike Ives in Earth Island Journal(Spring 2011). Swanky hotels, upscale restaurants, and tourist trams may soon invade the pristine four-year-old park, established in partnership with the Nature Conservancy as a pilot site for a dozen similar national parks throughout Yunnan Province.

Turns out that China is following in American footsteps by not exactly treasuring its natural resources. U.S. national parks, born as a “national playground” in response to “tourist-hungry railroad companies,” had their share of growing pains, Ives reminds us. Similarly, sites like Laojunshan will need to sort out the conflicting demands of hard-boiled economics and high-minded conservation.

And where in this debate stand the indigenous people of Laojunshan, 11,000 of whom live and farm within the park’s 419 square miles? “One strategy is teaching local villagers to create home-stay facilities for visiting hikers,” Ives suggests. “Another is training them as tour guides.” Indeed, an indigenous Lisu guide escorted Ives through the Yunnan backcountry.

Ironically, the best way to bring adventurers into the heart of the wilderness without disturbing its ecological balance may be an efficient mass tourism system. “Odd as it may sound,” Ives writes, “if developers build trams and tour-bus-friendly infrastructure in Laojunshan, they may in some cases protect the area’s natural resources.”

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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