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How are U.S. perceptions of China sadly out of date? One example lies in how China’s first national park was created.

China has over 2,500 nature reserves, but had no national parks until a few years ago. So The Nature Conservancy worked with the Yunnan provincial government and the Diqing county governor to create China’s first national park — Potatso (Pudacuo) National Park, a Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-sized swath of land in the north part of the state where the government has invested heavily in a classic U.S. national park infrastructure — roads, tour buses, boardwalks, interpretive programs.

It was a bit of a head scratcher — the landscape looked like Yellowstone and so did the roads, lodges, tour buses, stops and signs. But those in charge spent (borrowed) something north of $100 million U.S. on the infrastructure and are generating a very large income stream to pay off the loan. The Conservancy worked with them on the signage, design of infrastructure, land plan, etc. Oh yeah, they designated, designed, constructed, and implemented this new national park from what was basically lightly used high-country grazing land in a little over three years.

Here’s the really interesting thing, though: The Diqing county governor — not the central government — was the driving force behind all of this. He set aside the land, he borrowed the money and oversaw the design of the project, he pushed the idea with the Yunnan provincial authorities, and he made the park happen.

He did it so fast that two government ministries in Beijing are still arguing about to whom the park belongs (even though it is administered and managed by the Diqing county government, others want “credit”) and whether it can really be called a national park. Legend has it that the Diqing governor (akin to a county commissioner in the United States) visited Yellowstone and said something like “this is the place” — then came back to Yunnan and made it happen.

Recently, I and officials for The Nature Conservancy in China were in a room with a lot of Chinese government officials — Yunnan parks and wildlife deputies and secretaries, government think tank directors, and governors’ advisors. They had convened with the Conservancy to talk about how to advance the idea of national parks throughout China.

The group in the room was trying to figure out how to get the national government to embrace their concept of national parks to promote tourism, nature education, conservation and local economic development. It’s a bit like in the late 1990s in Colorado, when Alamosa County commissioners petitioned then-U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard to champion a new national park at the Great Sand Dunes.

All this is an interesting illustration about how wrong most of our perceptions of China are. We tend to think this is a place with one authoritarian government where all rules flow from the center, Beijing. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in that mistake lies a lesson for conservation in China.

— Text by Charles Bedford, Cool Green Science Blog