Until I started working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve last month, I had never strayed very far off the beaten path in China. Nanjing was a bustling city filled with foreign exchange students. Lijiang was one of the top tourist destinations in China. Sure, I’ve been to rural areas and visited villages accessible only by foot, but almost all of these places had been developed with tourism in mind. There were always guesthouses and hotels to stay in. There were always vans or buses set up to transport visitors to local areas of interest. I almost always saw other foreigners traveling the same route I was, usually a route outlined in The Lonely Planet or recommended on Trip Advisor.

But when I traveled to Laohegou for the first time, I knew that I was in for a different experience. Laohegou is located in Minzhu Village, Pingwu County. Pingwu County is technically under the jurisdiction of Mianyang City (Sichuan’s second-largest urban center), but a good two or three hours away by car. The receptionist at the hostel where I stayed in Chengdu had never even heard of Pingwu County, and had no idea that Laohegou existed. Same thing with several of my friends who had spent extensive time in Sichuan.

Following my supervisor’s instructions, I took a bus from Chengdu to Pingwu, getting off at a stop called Baicao. I stood in the middle of a tiny intersection as the bus drove away. There was a convenience store to my right, a couple of houses to my left, and nothing else. I had a moment of panic when I realized that it was almost dark, I had no idea where I was, and this might not even be the right stop. Luckily, barely a minute had passed before a big muddy pickup truck stopped to pick me up, and we rumbled off into the mountains, past Minzhu Village, through the big metal gate marking the entrance to the reserve, and finally arrived at the compound where Laohegou staff eat, sleep, and work.

It would be overly romantic to call Laohegou “wild.” The forest is all secondary growth, having been logged for timber in the past. Scattered throughout the woods are old stone walls and the decaying foundations of hunting cabins. But the lack of human presence has inspired a resurgence of wildlife in the area. In my short time in the reserve, I have already seen wild boars, tufted deer, and Sichuan snub nosed monkeys.

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Laohegou is no Yellowstone, teeming with busloads of tourists all year round. It’s no Laojunshan, in Lijiang, where visitors from all over China come to experience a (literal) breath of fresh air.

Laohegou is different. Over and over again, various staff members have emphasized to me that the reserve’s first and foremost goal is conservation. That means a strictly enforced “core zone” in which no human activity is allowed. That means limited access to the reserve, and a big metal gate blocking the entrance (although locals are still allowed inside, and I see visitors almost every weekend coming from nearby villages to check out the reserve or visit the dilapidated little temple up the road).

There are no plans to develop tourism in Laohegou, and there likely never will be. The area is beautiful, yes, like all natural places are—forests, mountains, stonebed rivers—but the landscape isn’t spectacular enough to attract visitors from across the country or even from Chengdu. The local villages aren’t set up to accommodate travellers. Everyone agrees that an influx of tourists would bring more harm than good. With a solid source of funding from the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, backed by some of China’s richest investors, Laohegou is free to focus on protecting biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

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A ranger checks one of the infrared cameras used to monitor wildlife in the reserve.

It is interesting to me that such a “pure” nature reserve would be founded by The Nature Conservancy, an organization known in the United States for cooperating with Big Business and supporting “sustainable” industry development. Mark Tercek, CEO and president of The Nature Conservancy, believes that quantifying natural resources for financial markets is the only way to make lasting improvements in the health of the global ecosystem. In a New Yorker article published last spring by D. T. Max, Tercek explains that without catering to the needs of industry, environmental protection would never gain enough support to make a real difference.

My high school classmate Ethan Linck wrote a great discussion of this New Yorker article here.

On one hand, I absolutely agree with Tercek. If we truly hope to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, in which human beings thrive without damaging ecosystems or depleting natural resources, then every industry, every business, and every individual must be committed to achieving this goal. Simply walling off choice patches of natural landscape isn’t going to cut it.

However, I also believe that “nature” is more than the sum of its parts, and that in quantifying nature, you lose sight of the reasons why it’s worth protecting in the first place. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s all well and good when a big factory realizes that it is both more cost effective and smog-reducing to plant a thousand acres of trees, rather than to install new smoke scrubbers. But what if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if it was actually more cost effective to install the scrubbers? The factory would have no incentive to plant trees, the local people and animals would never benefit from the beautiful forest, and the factory’s air pollution would continue as it has always continued.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a natural place, with the freedom to run around and climb trees and catch salamanders. There was no economic value to my childhood exploration, and it would be impossible to quantify how these experiences have influenced my adult life.

This is why I believe that there is no single blanket approach to conservation; every natural area should be evaluated individually, taking into account the needs of its particular people, plants, and animals.

Therefore, Laohegou represents an extremely interesting—and I’d argue, successful—approach to nature conservation. Laohegou recognizes that to succeed as a protector of biodiversity, it must maintain friendly, neighborly relations with the surrounding communities. Staff members are currently working with local farmers to develop a market for custom-order agricultural products: walnuts, honey, persimmons, meat, and poultry.

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But the reserve still puts conservation first. The locals may never get rich selling walnuts and sausages, but they won’t be destitute either. They won’t have to change their lives around completely to accommodate tourism or another new industry with no history in the area. They will always have a beautiful natural area to visit, without competing with busloads of visitors from all over the country.

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As for me, I’m excited for the chance to play a small role in the continued success of such a unique nature reserve, as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy. Although Laohegou is very isolated (I often find myself craving a bubble tea or wishing I didn’t have to beg somebody to drive me half an hour to the nearest store just so I can buy shampoo), I am enjoying living in a truly non-touristy area of China. As a foreigner, I actually feel less conspicuous here than I do in China’s second or third-tier cities. City-dwellers, raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and stereotypes about white people, are likely to point and stare and giggle.

Rural people might express mild surprise at finding a foreigner in their midst, but they are generally too preoccupied with more important matters to give me a second thought.

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