From Montana to Qinghai

The Importance of National Parks

Kunlun Group Photo

Kunlun Group Photo, © Patricia Dowd.

In July 2011, I received an unexpected email from someone named Lisong Ni. I’m glad I did.

Lisong is part of a small group of people working to create a new national park in China’s Qinghai Province. He contacted me because of my experience in Wyoming and Montana, including Yellowstone National Park, an area similar geographically and geologically to China’s Qinghai Province. After a year of corresponding and a site visit to Montana and Yellowstone from the working group in 2011, I was invited to China in September to help assess the area’s natural, historic, and cultural resources, and to discuss management options for the soon-to-be-created Kunlun National Park.

When I stepped off the plane in Xining, China, it was clear I was in a different world.

The Qinghai Province is China’s most diverse–Tibetan, Mongolian, and Muslim people all call the region home. The area is similar to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, except that 19,000-foot mountain peaks, high plains, sheep herders, wild yaks, camels, temples, monks, and small farms dot the landscape.

The Qinghai Province is the least-populated of all Chinese provinces. The region contains vast reserves of oil and gas, rare minerals, and tremendous energy potential. China sees Kunlun National Park as a way to make great contributions to the global economy, protect natural resources, provide environmental education, and increase the living standards for people in the region.

The park would also protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. Similar to Yellowstone’s northern pronghorn, Tibetan antelope experienced a population decline in the early 1900s. Millions of these animals once roamed the high Tibetan plateau; now herd numbers are in the thousands.

One reason for the population decline is illegal poaching. Another is fencing. When Tibetan sheep herders corral their animals, the fencing keeps sheep in, but does not allow wildlife to move easily across the landscape.

For the past eight years, I’ve worked with landowners, ranchers, land management agencies, and volunteers throughout southwestern Montana, altering and removing fences like this. As China changes and evolves, I am hopeful their fencing practices will too.

My experiences in the Kunlun Mountains and in the valleys of the Qinghai province were life-changing. I met people on their land, listened, and communicated without speaking a word of Mandarin. I learned that despite our so-called differences, most people want the same things: to share the natural world with curious souls and protect wildlife’s place on the landscape.

The people working to create Kunlun National Park believe in honoring the culture, history, and natural wonders of the Qinghai Province, improving lives for people who call this region home, and setting aside big areas of wild country for wildlife to thrive in and for people to enjoy. I believe in the Kunlun National Park project and look forward to seeing how this project unfolds.

About the Author

Patricia Dowd is former program manager for NPCA's Yellowstone Field Office.

  • Dory Wang

    Qinghai is NOT China’s most ethnically diverse. Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan all have populations that are far more ethnically diverse. Like much of the rest of China, Qinghai is for sale to the highest bidder–international or domestic. Witness the presence of Canadian mining interests and the many unregulated, horribly destructive mineral and coal mines in the province who bribe their way to making money for corrupt officials and the companies themselves.

    How much liquor was poured down your throat? What did you promise in return? Free trips to the US? Paid for by whom?

    Was your trip to Qinghai paid for by US taxpayers? If not, by whom? How did you communicate with people if you don’t know a word of Mandarin? Why no mention of Salar and Monguor people?

  • Patricia Dowd

    To clarify, this is a blog post, so space is limited and edits occur.

    The post should have read: Qinghai is one of China’s most diverse.

    Yes, areas of Qinghai are being developed in unethical and environmentally destructive manners, much like areas of the Western United States where oil, gas and coal companies are king. Profit over people is not okay, in the United States or anywhere in the world.

    Similar to how national parks are created in the United States, a group of people (who all grew up in the city of Xining) are working to protect the most culturally & environmentally important areas from development, through the creation of Kunlun National Park.

    I was one of 4 Americans on the trip, none of us spoke Mandarin. Fortunately we traveled with locals who spoke Mandarin and served as translators the entire time. I learned a few words of Mandarin and discovered that smiles, body language and hand gestures go far when communicating with people who “do not speak the same language.” Kindness goes a long way everywhere in the world.

    The trip was paid for by our local hosts in China, no U.S. dollars were spent.

    The only promise I made was to myself, to speak about Qinghai, China from my heart.