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China aims to build its own Yellowstone on Tibetan plateau

AP|
​The remotest corner of the world
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​The remotest corner of the world

Tibetan plateau, one of the world's last remote places, is set for a building boom. Mountains that were adroned with garlands of fluttering prayer flags will now be topped with with sprawling steel power lines. At night, the illuminated signs of Sinopec gas stations cast a red glow over newly built highways.


Ringed by the world's tallest mountain ranges, the region long known as ``the rooftop of the world'' is now in the crosshairs of China's latest modernization push, marked by multiplying skyscrapers and expanding high-speed rail lines.

AP
​The Yellowstone 2.0 project
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​The Yellowstone 2.0 project

China's nascent national park system, expected to be officially unveiled in 2020. Chinese officials also have visited U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, and sought input from varied organizations, including the Chicago-based Paulson Institute and the Nature Conservancy.


While construction continues at a frenzied pace elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau, the government already has stopped issuing mining and hydropower permits in this region.

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​Safeguarding the biodiversity
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​Safeguarding the biodiversity

One of the first pilot parks will be in Qinghai, a vast region in western China abutting Tibet and sharing much of its cultural legacy.
The area also is home to such iconic and threatened species as the snow leopard and Chinese mountain cat, and encompasses the headwaters of three of Asia's great waterways: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers.


The ambition to create a unified park system represents ``a new and serious effort to safeguard China's biodiversity and natural heritage,'' Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm says.

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​The question of tourism, livelihood, cultures looms
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​The question of tourism, livelihood, cultures looms

Can China marry the goals of conservation and tourism, while safeguarding the livelihoods and culture of the approximately 128,000 people who live within or near the park's boundaries, many of them Tibetan?


``China has a dense population and a long history,'' Zhu says. ``One of the unique features of China's national parks is that they have local people living either inside or nearby.''

China has previously undertaken vast resettlement programs to clear land for large infrastructure projects such as Three Gorges Dam, which left many farmers in new homes without suitable agricultural fields or access to other livelihoods.

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​Steps further being taken
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​Steps further being taken

But in developing the national parks, the government is giving conservation-related jobs to at least a swath of people living in the Qinghai pilot park _ called Sanjiangyuan _ to stay and work on their land.
The ``One Family, One Ranger'' program hires one person per family for 1,800 yuan a month ($255) to perform such tasks as collecting trash and monitoring for poaching.


``Our religion is connected with wild animals, because wild animals have a consciousness and can feel love and compassion,'' says a Tibetan herder. He is grateful for the additional income from the ranger program, but hopes his main livelihood won't be impeded _ and that he won't eventually be forced to leave.

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​The road ahead
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​The road ahead

The creation of protected areas is not a new idea in China. In fact, roughly 15% of the country's land already is assigned to a bewildering patchwork of local and regional parks. But many existing reserves are simply parks on paper, run by various agencies without enforceable guidelines.


In contrast, the national parks system is being designed from the ground-up to incorporate global best practices and new science.

The first parks to be formally incorporated into China's national park system will showcase the country's vast and varied landscapes and ecosystems _ from the granite and sandstone cliffs of Wuyishan in eastern China to the lush forests of southwestern Sichuan province, home to giant pandas, to the boreal forests of northeastern China, where endangered Siberian tigers roam.

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