James Ruggia | August 07, 2015 4:36 PM ET
A Common Ground
Sichuan’s Minjiang River descends from 13,000 feet to 1,300 feet within the city limits of Dujiang, creating a torrential current that was so roaring fast that it was a danger to those living along its banks. In 256 BCE, Li Bing, a Qin provincial governor got himself immortalized by engineering an ingenious system that not only corralled that raging river, it also controlled flooding and irrigated the local agriculture in the process.
A Taoist temple atop nearby Qingcheng Mountain preserves the memory of Li Bing as a “Dragon Tamer.” In Taoist mythology. dragons embody elemental forces of nature such as rivers. The fastest dragon in China today is no river, it’s a torrential economy.
The sheer force of that dragon can be seen in a January report from the Asian Wall Street Journal, which noted that of the record 97 skyscrapers that were built in 2014, 58 were built in China. The aggregated height of those new buildings if they were stacked would reach 44,449 feet, an altitude almost a third higher than that at which commercial airliners cruise. That’s a big dragon. And like the Minjiang River, that kind of force has positive and negative aspects that must be managed.
The economic dragon’s environmental impact in some parts of China has created smog dense enough at times to close airports and schools. Northeastern China is particularly vulnerable because of its enormous amount of industry. Beijing now color codes air quality levels on a daily basis. Clearly, China needs another Li Bing to channel this dragon without stripping away the benefits it provides.
It’s always more inspiring (and effective) to strive towards a goal than to run from a danger. China is more likely to prevail if it chases a vision of a healthy and prosperous land. Natural awe already exists in the grain of Chinese culture. Since the Tang Dynasty, Chinese painters and poets have seen landscapes as a mystical field where individuals can absorb the elemental intelligence of nature.
The environmental awakening that happened in western culture when the Romantic Movement changed our ideas about nature ended up changing our policies. In New York, the canvasses of the Hudson River School painters portrayed nature’s powerful vitality even as transcendental writers such as Thoreau and Emerson basically launched environmental consciousness in the U.S. By 1872 that consciousness had grown powerful enough to get the signature of Ulysses Grant on the document that established Yellowstone as America’s first National Park.
In 2016, the United States will commemorate the Centennial of the National Park Service, a service that today oversees about 430 parks. Our National Parks attract millions of visitors both domestic and international. Our National Park System is a model that’s been emulated by countries around the world. The latest such country is China, whose leaders may have noticed that about 40 percent of the 2.2 million Chinese tourists who visited the U.S. last year went to at least one national park or monument during their visit.
Now China is laying the roots of its own national park program and will establish trial parks in nine provinces over the next three years. China began to set aside scenic and historic interest areas in the early 1980s. By the end of last year it had nearly 430 of them. At 360 million acres, China’s network of national, provincial and local reserves has a larger land mass than America’s network of national parks, wildlife refuges and national forests combined. But a park system is more than land laid aside, its policy and management as well.
At a time when the financial, military and legal czars in China and the U.S. can find little common ground, the grounds themselves are forming the familial bonds of sisterhood. So far eight sister park connections have been formed between China and the U.S. The latest was forged in July when Baihuashan National Nature Reserve (outside of Beijing) and the Shenandoah National Park became sister parks with plans to share Baihuashan, best practices, research and to promote tourism. Like most sisters, Shenandoah and Yellowstone have much in common. They’re both heavily forested ecosystems located about 70 miles west of their nation’s capitals. They have similar mountain, rock and forest features, as well as beautiful natural landscapes, history, cultural relics and legends.
In 2013, an exchange took place that brought a group of Chinese officials to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sent a group of Alaskan park officials to Changbaishan National Nature Reserve, a reserve near the border of China, Russia and North Korea. The Alaskans took particular interest in the way the Chinese handled large crowds. Crowd control and flow is a problem for destination management everywhere, but in China, popular attractions draw massive crowds.
Beijing’s Forbidden City, for instance, has had to limit the number of visitors to the complex to 80,000 a day to control overcrowding. A successful Chinese national park system would have to successfully manage this issue above all others. American parks enjoy a good reputation for balancing commerce and conservation. Maybe we can be of help.
It’s inevitable that two large economies like the U.S. and China will see themselves as adversaries. Dragons are like that. And adversaries, whether they’re looking across a schoolyard or a dais at the United Nations, can only find common ground when something bigger or scarier threatens both of them.
The environmental crisis we are all facing dwarfs political and financial consideration. In the schoolyard, the friends you make with former adversaries end up the best friends of all. If our parks can manage sisterhood, maybe a broader brotherhood’s not far behind.
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