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Ex-rangers ride to the rescue of the world's national parks

Retired U.S. National Park Service workers formed Global Parks to share their expertise abroad.

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Ms. Yang, who studied natural resources and environmental management at the University of Hawaii, adds that man­agers of China's 2,500-plus nature reserves are also adapting to a new generation of domestic tourists: prosperous urbanites who have limited acquaintance with the outdoors.

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Yang says Chinese protected-area managers can learn from America's example. "That's why we invited [Global Parks]," she said at November's Bao­shan training. Given the American conservation legacy, NPS professionals can share "both the experience and the lessons," she said.

In the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, Yang helped Anne Castellina and Doug Morris communicate with Chinese managers. Sponsored by the Yunnan National Park Management Office and The Nature Conservancy China Program, the interpretive training was one of several designed to build management capacity in Yunnan's protected areas.

Yang coordinated the training with Zhou Lulu, national parks project officer for The Nature Conservancy China Program.

While hiking the Gaoligong wilderness, Ms. Zhou observed that Global Parks volunteers were teaching Chinese managers how to create "emotional bonds" between visitors and natural resources. What's more, Zhou said, they were explaining how to do it cheaply – an important consideration, because most Chinese nature reserves don't receive federal funding, according to Zhou.

As Zhou and Yang hiked, the Chinese managers paused beside a trail head overlooking the Salween River Valley.

"Are there signs?" asked Castellina, whose backpack was covered in national park badges. "As you walk around this trail, what themes jump out at you?"

"Think of pamphlet ideas," added Morris, who lives in Montana. "And remember: There are no right or wrong answers, just a lot of good opinions."

Two days later, the gang reconvened in downtown Baoshan. After joining the Chinese managers for a Yunnan-style breakfast, Morris and Castellina asked them to design interpretive plans for the forests they had hiked.

The hotel conference room filled with chatter and cigarette smoke. One group scribbled a chart juxtaposing types of visitors ("public tourists," "students," "scientists") with outdoor pursuits ("experience nature and culture," "recreation and enjoyment," "awareness-raising and research").

Another group sketched a trail plan referencing the Eastern Hoolock Gibbon, a rare mammal living in Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve. A third compiled interpretive suggestions in a PowerPoint slide show.

During a break, managers from three protected areas told this reporter that they were happy to learn from retired NPS professionals. The Americans' advice wasn't always directly applicable, they noted, but it helped them brainstorm ways of balancing ecotourism and conservation with the needs of indigenous people and park concessionaires.

Chinese grateful for US volunteers

Ding Wendong of Pudacuo National Park said he was interested to learn that park employees, not just rangers, could be trained to do park interpretation.

Lin Rutao, who coordinates ecotourism planning for Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, says the Global Parks training has inspired him to renovate a visitor center and improve trail signage.

"We are so glad that Anne [Castellina] and Doug [Morris] offered their skills and experience!" Lin said through an interpreter. "Maybe in the future we can send people to the United States for training, or recruit American volunteers to visit us?"

Castellina was smiling. She had already invited one of Lin Rutao's employees, a 20-something Chinese woman who speaks English, to visit Florida.

"We have 12 national parks" in Florida, Castellina said. "Anytime you want to come, you can stay with me!"