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With U.S. as a Model, China Envisions Network of National Parks

Tourists at Huanglong, where conservation has become secondary to moneymaking ventures.

BEIJING — More than 140 years ago, the United States government designated Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park — an untouched Western landscape of geysers, grizzly bears and soaring peaks. The national parks program eventually expanded to include more than 450 sites and has become one of the country’s greatest tourist draws.

Now China is trying to do with some of its natural spaces what the United States did during its own industrial boom. On Monday, Chinese officials and the Paulson Institute, a research center based in Chicago, announced a plan to undertake trial national park projects in nine provinces over the next three years.

“National parks are one of the very best ideas America has exported to the world,” Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former United States Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs chief executive, said in an email. “A Chinese national park system that protects and manages the country’s ecologically rich, beautiful areas can be a source of great national pride and environmental education.”

“The trick in China will be how to let the public share its natural treasures, while at the same time protecting them,” said Mr. Paulson, who founded the Paulson Institute in 2011. “Conservation begins with a love of nature. You need to value something before you want to save it.”

In some spots in China where nature still thrives, like the popular Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou alpine parks in Sichuan Province, conservation efforts have become secondary to moneymaking ventures by tourism concession companies. Such areas are also often threatened by industrial pollution and construction.

But in December 2013, according to state news reports, Xi Jinping, the country’s president and head of the Communist Party, told a meeting of senior officials charged with making economic policy that China should move forward with a true national park system.

The Paulson Institute, where research on China’s environmental problems has been a major focus, began talking last fall to the National Development and Reform Commission, the government agency that helps oversee economic planning, about how to help out.

“This was really big news,” Rose Niu, the chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, said of Mr. Xi’s remarks. “No. 1, the national park system is a new concept to China. No. 2, not so many environmental conservation issues have been highlighted on such a high-profile political level.”

Ms. Niu, who moved to Washington from China in 2008 and was in Beijing this week, said the Paulson Institute would provide “technical support” to the Chinese agency as officials explore ways to manage and protect the trial parks. That support includes promoting exchanges between Chinese officials and experts in the United States, developing guidelines for managing the pilot parks, and doing case studies of national park areas in seven countries: Brazil, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand and the United States.

Mr. Paulson has committed the institute’s help to planning for a trial park in the Wuyishan area of Fujian Province, a mountainous coastal region where Mr. Xi spent many years as an official. On the Chinese side, scholars from Tsinghua University in Beijing will help draft guidelines for Wuyishan and the other parks. Ms. Niu and others are scheduled to fly to Fujian on Thursday and travel to Wuyishan for meetings.

Accompanying the group will be Doug Morris, who worked for 40 years with the United States National Park Service, including as a superintendent. Mr. Morris is a member of Global Parks, a nonprofit group started in 2008 by retired National Park Service managers to advise foreign governments on creating national parks.

Some Chinese officials at the provincial and regional levels have experimented with park conservation. Ms. Niu, who is from Yunnan Province, played a critical role in helping establish a conservation area there called Pudacuo. The protected area covers about 115 square miles where the parallel flows of the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween have carved deep valleys. Ms. Niu worked on that project after she became China country director of the Nature Conservancy, an American environmental group, in 1997. Mr. Paulson is a longtime member of that group.

“China wants to develop a national park system in line with international practices and standards, but also fitting into a Chinese context,” Ms. Niu said in Beijing. “As someone working on conservation issues for 20 years, I believe this is significant progress that the Chinese government is making. The Chinese government knows the Chinese public needs more and more green space and clean air.”

“The Chinese want beautiful places and beautiful landscapes,” she added. “They want to enjoy the natural resources. These kinds of resources are less and less in China. China not only needs to fight pollution of air, water and soil, but it also needs to invest in its natural capital.”

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