Some Countries Still Have Big Dreams for Building the Future

Tiger statute
Tiger statute in Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park
Credit: Zak Smith

I recently returned from a trip to China, where I had the opportunity to visit areas that will be part of China’s Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park. Located in China’s northeast, spanning portions of Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces and sharing borders with Russia and North Korea, the park will be more than 14,000 square kilometers, making it about 1.5 times larger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States (you can see a map of the park area in this article from Science).

Cooperating with the Tiger and Leopard Park Authority, NRDC will work on the following:

  • Helping conduct exchanges with national park systems in other countries (e.g., work with the National Park Bureau in China to set up a sister park initiative with parks from other parts of the world);
  • Developing targeted training materials for Tiger and Leopard Park stakeholders (e.g., help design and conduct trainings for park staff, rangers, and communities to assist them in reaching a shared vision of the park they are going to build, as informed by local wisdom);
  • identifying opportunities for communities located within and adjacent to the park as the area transforms (e.g., work with park authorities to identify a community with representative challenges to help it transition into an eco-friendly community, characterized by a smart use of natural resources, green living style, and green jobs, so local people can benefit from the park’s existence and live in harmony with tigers and leopards).

China’s objective is to develop a system of national parks by 2020 to protect areas of outstanding beauty and areas vital to endangered species, like the Siberian tiger and Amur leopard. China is starting with a handful of parks to pilot the new system and has a grand vision of unified management with a focus on conservation, science, and education in service of future generations.

One of the pilots is the Tiger and Leopard Park, which is desperately needed if China’s tiger and leopard populations are going to survive and thrive. There are only about 30 tigers in the area and 40 leopards and they need the non-fragmented habitat the national park promises for those numbers to grow.

Experts Discuss Boundary of Tiger and Leopard National Park
Experts Discuss Boundary of Tiger and Leopard National Park
Credit: Wang Juan

It’s an ambitious plan and one that will no doubt be fraught with difficulty as it comes to fruition. While I noted the trepidation of local leaders, who will be on the front lines of transforming this area into a national park, I was struck more by the dream that this park and the other pilot parks represent as China pursues the development of an “ecological civilization,” which emphasizes better planning and development within the context of an environment’s capacity and need for restoration. In an ecological civilization, development will progress in the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation, requiring pollution reduction and using natural resources efficiently.

Cynics may scoff at the idea of an ecological civilization and chalk it up to political pandering on a global scale, but that’s not the impression I had from talking to government officials charged with developing China’s national park system. They understood their charge for the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park—achieving harmony between humans and nature—even if they don’t yet know how to achieve it, but nonetheless accepted that this is China’s course and the path for China’s future.

For me, China’s effort is all the more poignant in the context of the political and economic system we have in the United States. Certainly, people still have ambitious dreams, but the big dreams of our national leaders largely focus on tearing down our big accomplishments, like privatizing social security, eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, or gutting key regulations meant to protect the environment and human health.

Even when new initiatives strive for something grand, like securing more healthcare for the uninsured, they’re hardly inspired and reek of capitulation—was anyone really excited about forcing millions of people into our broken private health insurance system? And none of them are related to a major environmental initiative, despite the desperate need to eliminate carbon emissions and save countless species from extinction. And no, I’m not counting the Paris Agreement for several reasons. First, it was hardly a U.S. initiative and second, stating lofty goals (limiting the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) but failing to make carbon-emission reduction commitments that would achieve that goal is hardly inspired or grand.

We can debate the last time the U.S. Federal Government did something “big” for the environment that produced a significant conservation benefit (Creation of the Superfund program in 1980? Signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987? Passing the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990?), but it’s certainly been a while. It’s been nearly 25 years since the United States set aside a park as large as China’s Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, when it created Death Valley National Park in 1994. Instead, we have EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, tearing down environmental safeguards and stamping out science that supports protecting our climate and health, and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke bent on shrinking our public lands and opening them up further to polluting industries.

So, for me, China’s National Park initiative is a reminder that we can dream big. Perhaps this is a step to fulfilling E.O. Wilson’s (American biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author) Half-Earth proposal (preserving half of the planet’s surface in an undisturbed and natural condition to save nonhuman life on the planet and thereby secure the stabilization necessary for our own survival), which a New York Times reviewer predictably characterized as an “improbable prescription for the environment.” It would be easy to agree with such pessimism and just give up now, consigning tens of thousands of species to extinction and sealing our own fate in the process, but like China, I choose to dream big.