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Sacred Space

Ed Norton '71 and Ann McBride at Tiger Leaping Gorge

On mountains sacred to Tibetans where prayer flags wave, along four of Asia's greatest rivers where flocks of birds migrate, Ed Norton '71 is surrounded by the remote beauty he came halfway around the world to save. And as unmistakable as the red soil beneath his feet, he sees the future of this isolated area of China's Yunnan Province: many, many more visitors.

Since the Nature Conservancy brought Norton East in 1999 as senior adviser to the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, local governments hit hard by a 1998 logging ban have turned to scenery as a source of revenue. New hotels in historic cities are packed with guests. Several 737s land every day in the newly built Shangri-La Airport near the Tibetan border, as if Lost Horizon's utopian valley were just a rental car drive away.

The Great Rivers Project itself is a convergence of such economic interests and the desire to preserve a national treasure. A multimillion-dollar collaboration of the Nature Conservancy and the Yunnan Provincial Government, the project aspires to set up a series of wilderness preserves and national parks in an area of northwest Yunnan the size of West Virginia. Home to a resplendent variety of animals and plants from the snow leopard and red panda to many of the herbs used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, the area is also home to more than 3 million people, many of them ethnic minorities, many extremely poor.

Norton struggles to find ways to pass the benefits of tourism on to the inhabitants, and part of the answer, he believes, is ecotourism. Big hotels from Shanghai and Hong Kong bring jobs to the area, but he hopes to see more locally managed projects as well as programs that train residents to act as guides.

The Great Rivers Project has a long way to go. But Norton is impressed by the tenacity of his Chinese colleagues. He also believes the U.S. National Park system can serve as a model of managed tourism.

When Norton is not out in the field, much of his time is spent negotiating, fund-raising, politicking--familiar ground from his years at the Wilderness Society and the Grand Canyon Trust yet in other ways confoundingly strange. At home, he says, although "nothing is ever finally protected and Satan never sleeps. . . . at least you know the system." Results are much less predictable, he says, in China.

Norton and his wife, Ann McBride, who left the presidency of Common Cause to go to China as a consultant to the project, have found it hard to be away from their home country since the terrorist attacks. But if September 11 represents the dark side of humanity, then "working together to protect the planet with people of other cultures and other countries represents the most hopeful side."

--Emily Newburger

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