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.

Rhododendrons, which are exceptionally diverse in this region, cover a hillside in the 770-square-mile Baima Snow Mountain Nature Preserve located in Yunnan province, southeastern China. The preserve was established in 1983. Former US National Park Service employees have worked in this nature preserve.
Courtesy of Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve
Doug Morris (l.), a former US National Park Service employee, and Zhou Lulu, with The Nature Conservancy China Program, explore the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve in Yunnan, China.

On Sept. 30, 2009, Anne Castellina fielded an e-mail from Doug Morris, a fellow US National Park Service retiree. Did the former Alaska park superintendent, Mr. Morris wondered, feel like flying to China in November as a volunteer consultant?

"Sure," Ms. Castellina said.

In October, she drafted a lesson plan about "park interpretation" modeled on consulting she'd done for the US National Park Service (NPS) in Zambia. Five weeks after their initial communiqué, Castellina and Morris arrived in Baoshan, an untouristy Chinese city in western Yunnan Province.

The retired Americans had come to advise senior managers of Yunnan national parks and nature reserves. For two days, they taught park-interpretation skills at an upscale Baoshan hotel. Then they boarded a bus to Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized protected area on the border between China and Burma (Myanmar), where they supervised a two-day outdoor training.

Castellina and Morris were the first representatives of Global Parks, a Virginia-based nonprofit that sends retired conservation professionals to protected areas around the world. Launched in January 2009, Global Parks markets its projects as complements to consulting sponsored by the NPS's Office of International Affairs.

Todd Koenings, managing director of Global Parks, says the nonprofit will apply for funding from private and corporate foundations and the federal development agency USAID. Global Parks volunteers, he says, will help protected-area administrators in developing countries build management capacity and promote biodiversity.

"[Presidents] Obama and Bush have emphasized the idea of national service, and we're playing into that," Mr. Koenings said in a phone interview from Virginia. "We're leveraging all these retired people to solve important issues in a way that will have a sustainable impact."

A rising corps of qualified volunteers

His Peace Corps-like messaging may be timely. According to the US Office of Personnel Management, federal employee retirements will hover above 50,000 per year through 2018. Koenings expects future retirements to produce a pool of highly qualified conservation professionals who are eager to volunteer overseas.

The United Nations Environment Program reports that, between 1970 and 2004, worldwide protected-area coverage soared from fewer than 3 million square kilometers (1.16 million square miles) to more than 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles). But many of these protected areas are "ineffective," according to the UNEP report, partly because they lack management plans and trained personnel. Koenings suggests that Global Parks volunteers will respond to that need.

The need wasn't always so pronounced. Beginning in the 1960s, managers from non-US protected areas visited iconic American parks through a program called the International Seminar on National Parks and Equivalent Reserves. Michael Soukup, a former associate director for natural-resource stewardship and science at the NPS, recalls that the seminar helped attendees absorb firsthand lessons from the American system.

But the seminar was disbanded in the early 1990s for "financial and other reasons," says Mr. Soukup, now a Global Parks board member.

Today, budgetary belt-tightening has forced the NPS over the past decade to "de-emphasize" international partnerships, he says.

Soukup and Koenings insist that Global Parks won't usurp tasks currently handled by the NPS. However, they criticize a perceived lack of connections between the 94-year-old federal agency and the international conservation community. Koenings says Global Parks could "reinvigorate" the park service's Office of International Affairs.

Stephen Morris, chief of the OIA, says the relationship between his office and Global Parks will be collaborative. Echoing a Jan. 7, 2010, letter from NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis to Koenings, Mr. Morris told The Christian Science Monitor that Global Parks could assist the OIA by providing long-term support for international projects.

According to Morris, the OIA operates on less than $900,000 annually and received a $100,000 budget cut in 2003. In a phone interview, he said the office currently uses retirees for projects on an "ad hoc basis." A working partnership with Global Parks, Morris speculated, would help all parties "get more done."

There is plenty to do, notes Jamison Ervin, a Vermont-based consultant who manages a United Nations Development Program project on protected areas. Ms. Ervin, who travels the world advising conservation professionals, says protected areas are crucial because they preserve biodiversity and help humans adapt to climate change and food insecurity.

Like Koenings of Global Parks, Ervin criticizes US conservation policies. Noting that the United States is one of only two nations – the other is Andorra – that is not a party to the 2003 Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty advocating social equity and sustainable development, she called the past 10 years a "lost decade" for US engagement with international conservation issues.

"We created the idea of national parks," Ervin says, "but we've lost tremendous opportunities to share the learning that we've done over the last 150 years. Countries are increasing their protected areas, and in many cases, they don't have the capacity to manage what they've created."

Adapting to new Chinese ecotourists

Ervin says Global Parks could be a resource for China, where, according to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, industrialization and urbanization pose "serious threats" to biodiversity.

Nature reserves now make up 15.2 percent of China's land area. In 2008, China's State Forestry Administration designated Yunnan a pilot province for a nascent national-park network.

But, says Yang Fang of the Yunnan National Park Management Office, managers at Yunnan parks and nature reserves struggle to balance conservation, scientific research, and ecotourism with the needs of people who live inside protected areas and concessionaires who profit from ­protected-area resources.

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.

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!"

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