BEIJING — The Buddhist monks, nomads, and peasants of eastern Tibet once could have described their homeland as a dream-like natural paradise. The area contains some of the planet's deepest gorges and highest mountains, a spectacular spectrum of wildlife ranging from snow leopards to golden monkeys, and multicolored pockets of poppies, orchids, and rhododendrons.
But the region has been invaded by myriad serpentine roads that allow Chinese trucks to carry off lumber and other resources. The area contains one-seventh of China's forest reserves, and its deforestation is helping fuel China's building boom.
Four of Asia's major rivers - the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtze - originate in the area and sustain life for not only its 700,000 Tibetans but also for more than a billion people in eight countries who live downstream.
Ironically, disastrous floods in 1998 may ultimately lead to eastern Tibet's environmental salvation. Last summer's flooding of the Yangtze, which destroyed millions of homes in central China, "really sent a warning signal to the government about the dangers of rampant logging," says World Bank official Liu Jin.
The floods, exacerbated by erosion along deforested sections of the Yangtze's flood plains and silting of the river, "are boosting political support to protect the upper reaches of the Yangtze," says Daniel Taylor-Ide, of the West Virginia-based environmental group Future Generations.
Mr. Taylor-Ide says that several years ago, Tibet's government asked his group to help design a preserve for eastern Tibet based on the Mt. Everest model. The Four Great Rivers Nature Preserve would be six times larger than its forerunner.
Aimed at protecting the environment, it would be opposed by the state-run lumber firms that profit there.
But the 1998 floods "brought home the point that environmental damage can cause enormous economic damage," says Ms. Liu. China's State Council responded to the disaster with a partial ban on logging in provinces worst hit by erosion.
Environmental experts say the government is also anxious to protect its Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze. The multibillion dollar dam - China's largest infrastructure project since the Great Wall - is now under construction and could take a direct hit in any new flooding.
Backers of the rivers preserve are now stressing the importance of protecting forests on the upper reaches of the Yangtze in order to safeguard the hydroelectric project and the millions of residents downstream.
Worries about the dam could eventually boost a small but growing minority of government officials who now realize that "economic development must go hand-in-hand with conservation," says Liu.