Into the Woods at Sai­hanba

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Hu Zhoumeng

Since the 18th Na­tional Congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, de­spite grave dif­fi­cul­ties both at home and abroad, China has risen to the chal­lenge and worked hard to press ahead, driv­ing for­ward sus­tained, healthy eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment, un­der the lead­er­ship of the CPC Cen­tral Com­mit­tee with Xi Jin­ping at its core.

Dur­ing the past five years, China has achieved ma­jor progress in fin­ish­ing build­ing a mod­er­ately pros­per­ous so­ci­ety in all re­spects, made im­por­tant strides in deep­en­ing re­form, and con­tin­ued to ex­er­cise law-based gover­nance. All of these achieve­ments show that Chi­nese peo­ple have the courage, in­ge­nu­ity, and abil­ity to over­come any dif­fi­culty or hard­ship, and that there is even bet­ter de­vel­op­ment ahead for China.

How long does it take to trans­form a desert into a for­est? In the 1960s, 369 forestry work­ers started seek­ing the an­swer in Sai­hanba (lit­er­ally, “beau­ti­ful high­land”), a cold alpine area in north­ern He­bei Prov­ince bor­der­ing the In­ner Mon­go­lia Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion. Sai­hanba was once a lush for­est where the royal fam­ily went hunt­ing un­til the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) when it was opened to the public as the dy­nasty lost promi­nence. Herders and farm­ers moved in and trees were cut down. In the fol­low­ing years, sand­storms from deserts to the north swept through, driv­ing away an­i­mals and res­i­dents alike, leav­ing Sai­hanba a bar­ren land. Af­ter 55 years, Sai­hanba is now blan­keted with 75,000 hectares of for­est. The mil­lions of trees are the fruits of the la­bor of gen­er­a­tions of forestry work­ers who spent some of the best times of their lives in the area.

From Zero to One

In the fall of 1962, 22-year- old Zhao Zhenyu, a fresh grad­u­ate from an agri­cul­tural school, and his class­mates ar­rived in the new Sai­hanba for­est farm af­ter a two- day trip in a bumpy open truck from Chengde, He­bei, 150 kilo­me­ters away. A to­tal of 127 grad­u­ates like Zhao came from across China to work on the for­est farm. Their av­er­age age was less than 24. As con­struc­tion across the coun­try took off, the young, am­bi­tious crew joined the 200 work­ers who were al­ready there in re­build­ing the for­est.

Sai­hanba is fa­mous for its cold—snow cov­ers the land for seven months a year and tem­per­a­ture can drop to mi­nus 43 de­grees Cel­sius. When win­ter ar­rives, it’s im­pos­si­ble to walk through the snowy wind. The for­est farm had in­suf­fi­cient housing in its early years. The stu­dents and work­ers once shared sta­bles with horses and pitched tent-shaped shel­ters us­ing tree trunks, re­in­forced with twigs and straw. The food sup­ply was mea­ger as well, and res­i­dents mostly sur­vived on flour made from naked oats and wild herbs. In those days, yel­low beans soaked in salt wa­ter were a dish that would in­spire bois­ter­ous cheers.

“The econ­omy was hav­ing a hard time so we pri­or­i­tized pro­duc­tion be­fore im­prove­ment of liv­ing stan­dards,” says Zhao.

Plant­ing did not go well in the first two years. The seeds im­ported from other re­gions failed to with­stand the wind and cold of Sai­hanba, and only eight per­cent sur­vived. Lo­cal tree breed­ing be­came the new fo­cus. The team man­aged to breed larch seeds with sturdy stems and ro­bust roots with im­proved meth­ods, which bet­ter suited the harsh en­vi­ron­ment. In the spring of 1964, planters recorded a 90-per­cent suc­cess rate across 34 hectares for the first time af­ter years of ex­ten­sive work. Since then, green has been spread­ing across Sai­hanba.

Top Threat

In the fire sur­veil­lance room of the Sai­hanba for­est farm, Yu Lei sits at a desk fac­ing four com­put­ers con­nected to video sur­veil­lance, in­frared fire de­tec­tor radar and light­ning fire de­tec­tors. From time to time, he looks up at a screen on the wall in front of the desk dis­play­ing the feeds from 24 cam­eras in the for­est. As a

fire pre­ven­tion worker, Yu and six col­leagues take turns watch­ing the mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem 24/7. “The of­fice is never empty,” Yu stresses. “The trees in the for­est are close to each other. If a fire bursts out, the loss would be unimag­in­able.”

Like the fire pre­ven­tion staff, for­est pa­trol and fire watch­ers also play im­por­tant roles. Pa­trol hap­pens ev­ery day to pre­vent nearby vil­lagers and tourists from en­gag­ing in dan­ger­ous be­hav­ior, and fire watch­ers stay in nine tow­ers at high ge­o­graph­i­cal po­si­tions that af­ford a broad view.

“Wang­hailou” is a watch tower lo­cated in the north­east of the for­est at an al­ti­tude of nearly 2,000 meters, mak­ing it the high­est. Liu Jun and Qi Shuyan, a mar­ried cou­ple, have op­er­ated the sta­tion for 11 years. Dur­ing the three most dan­ger­ous months ev­ery spring and fall, Liu and Qi take turns watch­ing for any signs of smoke or fire in the sur­round­ing woods, tak­ing notes and re­port­ing to head­quar­ters ev­ery 15 min­utes from sun­rise to sun­set. Their work con­tin­ues in the night, but fre­quency drops to once per hour. Through the years, the note­books they use have piled up about two feet high.

Liv­ing with lone­li­ness is the sac­ri­fice fire watch­ers make. Ex­cept for sum­mer when tourists flock to the for­est, the cou­ple hardly sees any faces, es­pe­cially when heavy snow blocks ac­cess to the for­est in win­ter. Liu and Qi are left to sup­port and com­fort each other.

Years of te­dious tend­ing have paid off, how­ever. No fire dis­as­ter has hap­pened in Sai­hanba since 1962. “From spring to fall, I feel like I can see the trees grow a few cen­time­ters through my tele­scope, but planters tell me they grow ten times that much,” Liu re­marks.

“Smoke-free Fire Haz­ard”

For forestry work­ers, pests are the next worst threat af­ter fire. This spring, Eran­nis anker­aria Staudinger, a pest that feeds on larch leaves, in­vaded over 3,000 hectares of for­est. Guo Zhifeng, chief of the Pest Con­trol Sta­tion at the Sai­hanba for­est farm, and his col­leagues

fought it for more than 20 con­sec­u­tive days from early morn­ing un­til late at night. Ul­ti­mately, the in­sects were brought un­der con­trol.

Re­cent years have brought a rise in for­est in­sect species. Pest con­trol staffers ven­ture deep into the for­est to study emerg­ing in­sects and take them back to lab­o­ra­to­ries for closer ex­am­i­na­tion. “We have to learn about how the in­sects might harm the trees to de­ter­mine the best way to deal with them,” Guo says.

Since join­ing the sta­tion 17 years ago, Guo has wit­nessed waves of progress in pest con­trol the­ory and tech­niques. Ac­cord­ing to him, pes­ti­cide drops from air­craft have been nec­es­sary for large-scale at­tacks, a prac­tice which has hap­pened once ev­ery six years since the for­est farm was first built. How­ever, over the last 12 years, the farm has not en­dured such an at­tack.

“We now try to keep pests un­der con­trol in­stead of elim­i­nat­ing them all,” he ex­plains. “Cer­tain pests keep oth­ers in check, so we need to help the for­est be­come able to main­tain this bal­ance on its own.”

Ad­vanced tech­niques are em­ployed in the for­est as the­ory improves. “Now we rely mostly on phys­i­cal meth­ods and nat­u­ral en­e­mies to con­trol pests,” Guo re­veals. “Pes­ti­cides are also be­com­ing more biomimetic. They cost more but do less dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Im­proved Eco­log­i­cal Sys­tem

At the Plan­ning and De­sign In­sti­tute of the Sai­hanba for­est farm, deputy chief Ji Fuli and en­gi­neer Yan Li­jun dis­cuss the satel­lite pic­tures pro­cessed by the ARCGIS ge­o­graphic in­for­ma­tion sys­tem on a com­puter screen. The 17 mem­bers of the in­sti­tute col­lect data from the for­est in spring and fall, and bring it back to the of­fice to cal­cu­late and an­a­lyze be­fore mak­ing plant­ing and man­age­ment plans for the next year.

Work­ing con­di­tions were much worse in the 1990s when Ji and Yan first ar­rived at the for­est farm. Horse-drawn car­riages took them from one for­est range to an­other, where they usu­ally stayed for half a year. “At that time, we could only man­age to col­lect data from one or two spots in an en­tire day. We pro­cessed data with just cal­cu­la­tors,” Ji de­scribes. “Forestry is a prag­matic job. There is no room for care­less­ness.”

Man­age­ment con­cepts have changed in re­cent years. “We used to tar­get eco­nomic ben­e­fits, but now our pri­mary goal is to strengthen eco­log­i­cal sta­bil­ity,” says Ji.

Ev­ery year the for­est in Sai­hanba pu­ri­fies 137 mil­lion cu­bic meters of wa­ter and ab­sorbs 747,000 tons of car­bon diox­ide. The oxy­gen re­leased by the for­est can serve nearly two mil­lion peo­ple’s needs for a whole year. The for­est pro­duces 12 bil­lion yuan (around US$1.8 bil­lion) of eco­log­i­cal value an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Forestry.

In the early days of the for­est farm, the harsh nat­u­ral con­di­tions forced planters to only plant larches, which has re­sulted in a sin­gu­lar veg­e­ta­tion struc­ture that can eas­ily fall vic­tim to pests. As the for­est improves the cli­mate in Sai­hanba, the frost-free sea­son has length­ened, rain­fall has in­creased and windy days have dropped, so other species of trees such as pi­nus sylvestris and spruce can now sur­vive. “When a multi-lay­ered for­est takes shape with trees, shrubs and grass, the sta­bil­ity of the ecosys­tem will be­come even stronger,” Yan notes.

Grow­ing Woods, Grow­ing Men

“The straight, non-bi­fur­cated trees with a wide crown are grow­ing op­ti­mally,” ex­plains tech­ni­cian Song Yingying, who can iden­tify the ideal time to prune as well as which trees to re­move af­ter five years of ex­pe­ri­ence on the for­est farm.

Work­ing in the moun­tains, she meets sud­den, un­ex­pected rain fre­quently and once had to wade through waist-deep snow. “I spend about 300 days a year with my col­leagues,” she ad­mits. “We take good care of each other like sib­lings. The work is never easy but we en­joy it.”

Song’s par­ents are also for­est work­ers in Sai­hanba, and her child­hood mem­o­ries are pep­pered with chas­ing other kids through the woods. “You can find a lot of tasty things like straw­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries in the for­est when fall comes,” Song says. “I would for­get to come home ev­ery time if not for my par­ents yelling, ‘time for lunch!’”

Fu Ying­nan re­turned to the Sai­hanba for­est farm where he grew up af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege in 2015. “The high­est grove of larches near the head­quar­ters was partly planted by my grand­fa­ther,” Fu claims. “Dad told me that those trees were shorter than him when he was a child.”

In re­cent days, a patch of ma­ture trees was cut down, so Song and Fu be­came busy guid­ing work­ers in dig­ging holes for seedlings to be planted next spring, mea­sur­ing dis­tances and mark­ing lines.

“When I started plant­ing for the first time, the team leader pointed to a large field and de­clared that it should be cov­ered with seeds,” Fu re­calls. “I was think­ing ‘Only God knows how long that will take.’ But by plant­ing a thou­sand trees a day, day af­ter day, it could be done. Now, I feel a tremen­dous sense of ac­com­plish­ment by look­ing at the same field and see­ing it packed with trees.”

by Fang Shuo

A wind power gen­er­a­tor in the Sai­hanba for­est farm. With green de­vel­op­ment in mind, farm man­agers only place wind power gen­er­a­tors in bound­ary ar­eas or on rocky bar­ren hills where tree plant­ing would not work.

cour­tesy of the Sai­hanba for­est farm

Forestry work­ers of old gen­er­a­tion wade through snow in the moun­tains.

cour­tesy of the Sai­hanba for­est farm

Sai­hanba was a bar­ren land fre­quently struck by sand­storms be­fore forestry work­ers be­gan plant­ing trees in the 1960s.

by Fang Shuo

An ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter in the Sai­hanba for­est farm shows vis­i­tors in­spir­ing sto­ries of the older gen­er­a­tions of forestry work­ers.

by Fang Shuo

Zhao Zhenyu (left) and his wife Bai Wen­juan, both in their 70s, are re­tired work­ers from the Sai­hanba for­est farm. In 1962, a to­tal of 127 grad­u­ates like them from across China came to re­build the for­est.

by Fang Shuo

“Wang­hailou” is a watch tower in the north­east of the for­est at an al­ti­tude of nearly 2,000 meters, mak­ing it the high­est of the nine watch tow­ers in the Sai­hanba for­est farm.

by Fang Shuo by Duan Wei

Fire watcher Liu Jun checks for signs of smoke or fire in the sur­round­ing woods. Fire pre­ven­tion worker Yu Lei and his six col­leagues take turns watch­ing the fire sur­veil­lance sys­tems 24/7.

by Duan Wei by Fang Shuo

At the Plan­ning and De­sign In­sti­tute of the Sai­hanba for­est farm, deputy chief Ji Fuli and en­gi­neer Yan Li­jun dis­cuss satel­lite im­ages pro­cessed by the ARCGIS ge­o­graphic in­for­ma­tion sys­tem. Guo Zhifeng, chief of the Pest Con­trol Sta­tion of the Sai­hanba for­est farm, and his col­leagues have col­lected more than 10,000 in­sect spec­i­mens since 2014.

Song Yingying (right) and Fu Ying­nan, two mil­len­ni­als, who grew up on the Sai­hanba for­est farm and re­turned to work there. by Duan Wei

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