Conifers, com­pe­ti­tion and a chang­ing cli­mate

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By ZHAO XU and LEI LEI

At the north­ern fringe of Sai­hanba, China’s largest man-made for­est, just a few hun­dred me­ters sep­a­rate green from yel­low.

From a van­tage point on a fire­watch­ing tower, close to the border of He­bei prov­ince and the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, even those few hun­dred me­ters are re­duced to a thin line. On one side of the line lies an army of trees — tall, vig­i­lant conifers stand­ing side by side — which form a di­vid­ing line at which the green­ery abruptly gives way to yel­low.

Fifty years ago, the divide did not ex­ist, ac­cord­ing to Chen Zhiqing, deputy di­rec­tor of the for­est’s man­age­ment team. “There used to be just one color — yel­low,” he said. “Back then, sand ruled this vast land, and was clearly on the move south­ward, to­ward Bei­jing. To­day, that move has been halted, and as the for­est ex­pands the sand is ef­fec­tively on the de­fen­sive.”

To­day, most res­i­dents of the cap­i­tal have no idea that at one time the city was threat­ened by the seem­ingly un­stop­pable sand.

“Tree leaves fall and rot, cre­at­ing a layer of hu­mus soil that grows year af­ter year. Like a gi­ant palm, this layer of soil, pre­vi­ously nonex­is­tent, helped to keep the sand below in place,” Chen, 46, said.

In ad­di­tion, the for­est helps to con­serve the wet­lands and rivers that are a cru­cial source of wa­ter for Bei­jing, Tian­jin, 280 kilo­me­ters away, and even Liaon­ing prov­ince more than 600 km to the north­east.

“Th­ese days, we have al­most no sur­face runoff,” Chen said. “The forests have cer­tainly ben­e­fited the sur­round­ing re­gions greatly, but the peo­ple who planted the trees have gained the most.”

Wang Limin is head of the for­est’s busi­ness of­fice. Last year, the for­est sold 11,700 cu­bic me­ters of wood, bring­ing in an es­ti­mated 95.5 mil­lion yuan ($14 mil­lion), ac­cord­ing to Wang. “The amount of wood sold is just 1.4 per­cent of our to­tal for­est stock, and is only 30 per­cent of our an­nual stock in­crease,” he said. “All the wood comes from man-made forests be­cause felling in nat­u­ral forests is banned.”

Other sources of in­come are seedlings and saplings, which the for­est au­thor­i­ties cul­ti­vate on a large scale and sell to gar­den­ers.

“All our clients come from fur­ther north, where the cli­mate is cooler. The most pop­u­lar species in­clude Scots pine, spruce and birch,” Wang said. “Last year, we sold 44,000 of them, bring­ing in 12 mil­lion yuan.

“The price of seedlings has fallen a lit­tle dur­ing the past few years, mainly due to com­pe­ti­tion from farm­ers who live nearby. Re­al­iz­ing that tree plant­ing can be a prof­itable busi­ness, they’ve all started do­ing it,” he added.

“The for­est may be earn­ing less, but the en­vi­ron­ment has ben­e­fit­ted. We are also con­sid­er­ing car­bon trad­ing in the near fu­ture, some­thing we be­lieve will be our big­gest and most sta­ble source of in­come.”

While some peo­ple are busy plant­ing trees, bor­row­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ence gained by the for­est’s work­ers dur­ing the past 55 years, oth­ers are tap­ping into a bur­geon­ing tourism busi­ness as Sai­hanba be­comes in­creas­ingly well-known for its lush green beauty.

“Last year, 510,000 tourists came. At full ca­pac­ity, the for­est, which now is also a nat­u­ral for­est park, can ac­com­mo­date 48,000 tourists a day dur­ing peak sea­son, June to Oc­to­ber, but we are still far from that limit,” Wang said. “Tourists are barred from set­ting foot in our na­ture re­serve, which is es­ti­mated at about 14,000 hectares.”

Dur­ing sum­mer, Sai­hanba’s “golden sea­son”, the for­est is draped in green and the weather is com­fort­ably cool. Later, as au­tumn ar­rives, the trees pro­duce a com­bi­na­tion of red, yel­low and dark green.

That’s be­fore the long win­ter takes hold in mid-Oc­to­ber, last­ing un­til early May. For the “early set­tlers”, those who spent their lives restor­ing the for­est, win­ter is the sea­son they re­mem­ber most vividly.

With the grow­ing forestry cov­er­age, Sai­hanba’s mi­cro­cli­mate has changed. The num­ber of frost-free days has risen from 52 to 64, and an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion is now 410 mil­lime­ters com­pared with 460 mm pre­vi­ously.

“It’s not as cold com­pared with be­fore, but it is still freez­ing dur­ing win­ter,” Chen said. “For us, the cold serves as a re­minder of all the hard­ships en­dured by those who came be­fore us and worked hard so we can call this place a for­est.”

There used to be just one color — yel­low. Back then, sand ... was clearly on the move south­ward, to­ward Bei­jing. To­day, that move has been halted.” Chen Zhiqing, deputy di­rec­tor of the Sai­hanba man­age­ment team

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