Rethinking Protected Areas In China

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Gretchen Daily. COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY

We have shared stories from time to time about the challenges and about related opportunities for protected areas in countries around the world. Thanks to Yale360’s Diane Toomey for this interview in which an ecologist describes her work with the Chinese government as they re-conceive their national park system and their other protected areas in a country where little land remains undisturbed:

For Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, nature isn’t only to be preserved for its own sake, but also for the value of the ecological services it provides, such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, and soil retention. Daily helped pioneer the concept of “ecosystem services,” and these days she applies those principles as she works with countries to develop land management strategies and determine which natural areas to prioritize for protection.

Most recently, Daily has worked with the Chinese government and Chinese scientists to evaluate and reimagine that country’s system of national parks and nature reserves. Their joint research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded in part by China’s Ministry of Finance, has shown that China’s current network of protected areas has failed to protect biodiversity and to provide vital ecosystem services.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Daily explains how she and her Chinese colleagues have used advanced mapping software to plan a major expansion of protected areas, talks about restoring ecosystems to provide key services such as sandstorm prevention and flood control, and discusses how, as the country works to establish its first national parks system, Chinese officials are using scientists’ findings to develop a conservation strategy with communities in mind.  “There’s heavy competition for land anywhere you go in China,” says Daily. “It’s kind of a zero-sum game. There is no land that’s just vacant, doing nothing when it comes to human well-being or just securing biodiversity for its own sake.”

Yale Environment 360: Your study, which you did along with Chinese colleagues, assessed China’s protected areas, looking at both biodiversity and ecosystem services. You concluded that overall these areas are weak in both instances.

Gretchen Daily: Many of the protected areas were set up with two major visions in the early days. One was to support iconic species like the giant panda. The other was to establish protected areas in places where few people live and where there’d be little contest for the land.  In pursuing those two ambitions, inadvertently there was a lot of neglect of what we know today to be of high value, both for biodiversity — plants, amphibians, and reptiles were particularly poorly secured in the reserves that are existing today­ — and also in terms of vital ecosystem services.

e360: Using the InVEST mapping software developed by the Natural Capital Project [which Daily co-directs], you evaluated these reserves for their ecosystem services. What were the services that you were particularly concerned with, and I’m assuming those are the services that were priorities for the Chinese government?…

Read the whole interview here.

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