Keiter travels to China to discuss national park system

China is home to a rich history of culture, traditions and breathtaking landmarks, but there’s one thing the country of 1.3 billion people doesn’t yet have: an organized national parks system.

The country is hoping to change that, however, and University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Robert Keiter recently was among a panel of experts invited by the Chinese government to a conference to discuss how to make that goal a reality.

Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the College of Law, traveled to Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan province as one of the keynote speakers at an international symposium designed to kick-off the country’s ambition to establish a national park system.

He was one of five foreign experts invited to present to China’s high-level officials, joining Jon Jarvis, who recently served as director of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), a biologist from Brazil, and an expert on Africa’s national parks.

Keiter spoke to a group of roughly 300 people consisting of mostly government officials from China who work in the country’s national forestry and grassland administration sectors, which will oversee establishment of a national park system. He outlined the positive and negative experiences of the U.S. national park system over time, explaining the system’s evolution and the impact of development, such as hotels, roads, and other visitor facilities, as well as the growth of gateway communities, which make national park destinations so popular in Utah and elsewhere.

As China seeks to create its own national park system, challenges related to development and tourism will likely mirror some of the complications that are evident in the U.S. with the increased popularity of national parks as a tourist destination. , The country is trying to decide whether they aggressively invite tourists to a newly created park system or let such destinations grow more organically, regarding them as less of a tourism magnet.

Professor Bob Keiter

“China, with its immense population and growing affluence, is concerned about their new parks being overrun with tourists and impacting the environment negatively,” said Keiter.  ”Another big issue they are wrestling with is that China has a situation where they have minority and indigenous populations living on lands they would like to bring into their national park system.  This is similar to the American experience—when we created most of our early national parks at the turn of the 20th century, we displaced many Native Americans who were on the lands. Chinese government officials are trying to figure out how to responsibly deal with  this issue. Do they build parks around local inhabitants or displace them?”

Another issue that Keiter presented to Chinese officials involved the U.S. experience protecting wildlife within our national parks. Many U.S. parks were not designed with adequate habitat for park wildlife to safely thrive. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, the park’s elk and buffalo must regularly leave the high elevation park during the wintertime in search for food, and they are subject to being shot by hunters after wandering outside the park onto territory that probably should have been a part of a larger park or wildlife reserve.  Keiter provided examples to Chinese officials about how scientifically designed wildlife preserves can contribute to a healthier “ecological civilization.”

Keiter said the experience of contributing to China’s national discussion on national parks was professionally rewarding and an excellent opportunity for the Stegner Center to showcase its international expertise on issues related to natural resource management and conservation. Because China’s goal is to launch pilot projects for a national park system by 2030, the country is currently working on legislation to create and regulate the new system.