Forests, which make up about 30 percent of the planet's land area, are critical to the Earth’s health, cleaning the air and supporting many forms of life. In the U.S., parks, forests, and wilderness areas are also a recreation resource. China is taking steps to see its beautiful national forest parks, already popular with its own citizens, become destinations for international ecotourism.

“The challenge is to prevent these areas from being loved to death,” said Jeff Marion, adjunct professor of natural resource recreation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. A recreation ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, he investigates the impacts of visitors and how to manage parks, forests, and wilderness for sustainability.

As a leader of the Leave No Trace initiative, Marion was contacted by a leading Chinese forestry scholar to share his expertise.

Marion is collaborating with Qinglin Huang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry’s Research Institute of Forest Resource Information Techniques in Beijing, to plan for recreation opportunities within China’s national forest parks. Huang, who studies the management and preservation of forest ecosystems, is doing funded research to develop methods to inventory and assess forest recreation resources and develop sustainable recreation opportunities.

With the support of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, Marion visited China in 2013, and Huang and his team visited the U.S. in May 2014.

Marion visited the academy research center and national forest parks in Beijing and the Hainan Province. “Hainan is tropical, much like Hawaii,” he said.

He gave presentations to approximately 60 scientists and national forest park administrators at the research center and at individual parks on sustainable park management, recreation inventory and planning, and — having worked for the U.S. National Park Service for 13 years — the agency’s management practices.

“I collaborated with the scientists and park managers to better understand the ecosystem and park management needs regarding recreation ecology — the assessment and management of visitor impacts to parks and forests, which they don’t presently do,” Marion said.

He observed that there were very few international visitors to the parks he visited, and that Chinese visitors rarely camp. “I asked to visit the one campground listed, and it was empty,” he said.

On their visit to the U.S., Huang and his colleagues — Yuancai Lei, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry’s Research Institute of Forest Resource Information Techniques, and Hong Wang, a senior engineer and deputy director at the research institute — spent three days in Southwest Virginia, visiting the New River Gorge and meeting administrators and specialists at the George Washington Jefferson National Forest headquarters in Roanoke as well as the district ranger in Blacksburg.

They also traveled to the Washington, D.C., area, with stops at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Refuge in Maryland and at several federal agency field offices in Virginia to see sustainable recreation actions in practice. In Washington, they met leaders at the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey; visited behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institution; and stopped at Great Falls Park along the Potomac River.

Marion also helped plan visits to Muir Woods in California and Yellowstone National Park but did not accompany the group.

“My Chinese colleagues wanted to discuss and collect information related to sustainable park and recreation management, and documents related to recreation infrastructure inventory and planning,” he said.

Marion will continue to assist the Chinese scientists with the collection of literature, and they will translate the most applicable publications received. They plan to develop and introduce new sustainable recreation inventory, planning, and management practices to China based on their collaboration. Huang’s funded research study will also establish demonstration projects based on these findings at national forest parks in the Hainan Province.

“China has some truly world-class protected natural and cultural areas to share with the world,” Marion said. “I hope that our research can assist in making these areas more accessible for international visitors while ensuring their protection for all time.”

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