In Mandarin, the characters for “America” directly translate to “beautiful country.” I never fully appreciated what so many Americans take for granted, access to federally protected open land, until I lived abroad in China. As an intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I’ve since mused about the difference between here and there.
My time in China was split between a university in the heart of Beijing and as many weekend and holiday trips as I could manage — ranging from tropical Yunnan to Inner Mongolia, the arid western plateau of Sichuan to eastern coastal cities, and the Russian-influenced northeast. The environmental degradation I saw across the country was an extreme shock.
In the past decade, China’s forested lands decreased by four percent. Ninety percent of China’s grasslands are classified as “degraded” and 40 percent of major wetlands are facing severe degradation. The IUCN Red List estimates that 20 percent of wild plants are endangered, 233 vertebrate species face extinction and 44 percent of China’s wild animals are declining. Sixteen of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities are in China and over two-thirds of its cities suffer water shortages due to desertification and pollution.
Because of severe economic stratification, most Chinese reside in eastern cities where outdoor recreation is an anomaly. In Beijing, I found only one free public park; all other open “public” spaces require a fee. In China’s most famous National Park, Zhangjiajie — the site of James Cameron’s fictional planet “Pandora” in the movie Avatar — visitors are not allowed to walk off paved trails, camping is prohibited, and vendors line rest areas to capitalize on nature-seeking tourists. In the race for economic development, China sacrificed thousands of years of environmental harmony, and the consequences are dire.
Though China’s National Wildlife Refuges are growing, both in number and area, wildlife management is crippled by the insurmountable bureaucracy of centralized government. The Chinese National Park Administration Committee was founded to lead park policy across the country, but Chinese law does not give the NPAC power over the Ministries of Forestry, Tourism, Environmental Protection, Construction, and other bureaus interested in the land.
To add to the confusion, every administrative decision in every park requires, by law, the approval from every ministry involved in park operations. Compiled with China’s extensive political corruption, there could not be a more inefficient system for regulating pressing environmental issues.
While the Chinese Communist Party ties itself in endless feedback loops, “Green Non-Government Organizations” work to fill in the gaps. Having worked for one NGO, I experienced countless frustrations in obtaining government data, presenting plans, and instigating research. Every NGO must have a “red cap,” a blessing from the central government to exist. If an NGO challenges any entity under the “red cap,” including foreign investors (such as Nike), municipal and local agencies, state owned enterprises, and any central agency, they lose their cap and thus their right to exist. Without a venue for environmentalists to challenge the shortcomings of the government and corporations, China’s federally protected lands remain ill-managed and largely ineffective.
Among other societal variables, federally protected lands act as an indicator of modern development. They require a stable government with complex conservation and funding schemes, and a culture that is able to prioritize environmental conservation over economic growth.
Alaska is a rare example of environmental forethought. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act allocated 128 million acres of Alaska into Federal protection, helping to mitigate the mistakes of over-exploitation in the Lower 48 and setting a precedent for federally protected lands in the U.S. and abroad. China, meanwhile, is trying to backtrack and restore destroyed environments while balancing economic stratification, development, and demands on natural resources in the wash of a developing market economy. ANILCA-protected lands in Alaska represent almost 40 percent of China’s total National Refuge system and vastly overshadow Chinese bureaucracy in management effectiveness.
While Alaska’s economic growth cannot compare to China’s, our state is facing thematically similar challenges in balancing development and environmental conservation. We too must come to grips with population growth and our impact on biodiversity, natural resource accessibility, and wildlife habitats.
While both Alaska and China face numerous environmental obstacles in their development, Alaska is fortunate, incredibly fortunate, to have a system of federal and state land management resources dedicated to conserving environmental health. As I traveled in China and looked upon dry riverbeds, counted mounting piles of burning waste, and tasted the pollution as it coated my mouth and burned my eyes, I longed for the blue skies of Alaska, for the casual moose passing through the yard and the timeless sighting of a fishing bear.
From my apartment in Beijing, I dreamt of camping and hiking, biking and kayaking on the Kenai Peninsula, where I have spent many summers. I reflected upon how truly blessed we are to live in a country with an extensive land management system, in a society that can afford environmental conservation, and in a place of astounding biodiversity and natural beauty. Privileged with a land management system capable of affecting change, we must continue to take action and responsibility for our community— of people, plants, and wildlife—and protect it for generations to come.
Nicki Schmitt is interning at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She is earning dual BAs in International Studies and Geography from the University of Denver. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.