Of National Parks and International Issues
“Of National Parks and International Issues” by Justin Harkins
American documentarian Ken Burns recently dubbed the National Park system “America’s Best Idea” (full disclosure: I have not seen even one second of this documentary, but I was working at the now-shuttered Borders store in Bozeman when it was released on DVD), and we Montanans are proud and lucky that our state boasts, in Glacier and Yellowstone, two of the country’s premier national parks. Among my earliest memories are trips with my family to explore the trails, creeks, and mountain balds of Great Smoky Mountains N.P., and I remain an unreconstructed national park junkie. So it was with great anticipation and tremendous patience that I awaited the days we got to spend exploring some of the national parks in the Mekong Delta.
Vietnam’s first national park was established by Ho Chi Minh in 1962. Of the country’s burgeoning conservation movement, Ho said, “[t]he current destruction of our forests will lead to serious effects on climate, productivity, and life. The forest is gold. If we know how to conserve and manage it well, it will be very valuable.” Although Vietnam presently features 30 national parks and numerous other conservation areas, I would be gilding the lotus more than a little if I wrote that the country has been wholly successful in heeding Ho’s advice. Of course, were Vietnam alone in its imperfect environmental record, we likely would not be here to study climate change. Anyway, for the purposes of this blog entry, it will suffice to say that Vietnam, like any country, has had to make certain choices that affect its ecosystems, and it hasn’t always chosen the course the environmentalists would prefer. Then again, sometimes it has, and we got to check out three vibrant examples of the country’s emergent conservation effort in the Mekong Delta.
Our first national park experience was at the Mui Ca Mau N.P., which occupies 42,000 hectares on the very southern tip of Vietnam. The representative who spoke to us bragged that Mui Ca Mau is unique among Vietnam national parks for its level of biodiversity, and the Park represents something of an evolution in the Vietnamese conservation ethos as its borders extend far into the South China Sea. Where just 50 years ago Ho was extolling the future virtues of forest protection, the country is now devoting 27,000 hectares of national park real estate (and the money required to care for it) to land that exists entirely beneath the ocean. It represents a profoundly nuanced conception of the extent of its protection responsibility that Vietnam has chosen to dedicate resources to protecting an area whose major ecosystem benefits are attenuated and slow to manifest; that’s precisely the sort of forbearance that characterizes a true commitment to conservation. As Michelle and I tip-toed across the bamboo boardwalk that led into Mui Ca Mau’s hauntingly beautiful mangrove forest, I gave silent thanks to our host country for rising to the challenge.
The next stop on our park tour was the inland peat swamp at U Minh Thuong N.P. Recognized as one of the highest priority conservation sites in the Delta region, U Minh Thuong is a complex network of wetland ecosystems that provides an oasis for flora and fauna amid the countless rice paddies that checker the surrounding landscape. We explored the Park from the (relative) comfort of two long, slender speedboats while our guides drove us through plant-choked canals, and we enjoyed a lengthy stop at a remote observation tower where Dr. Viet, our accompanying instructor, taught us how the canal perfectly separates the dry Melaleuca forest on one side from the swampy wetland on the other.
We shared the canals that day with several local fishermen who comprised, along with a few farmers astride water buffaloes, the only non-staff people we encountered in any of the three parks. That solitude is a noticeable difference between the national park experiences in Vietnam and in the U.S., and it’s evidence of the different motivations that underlie each system. In the U.S., the National Parks are the country’s “crown jewels” to be preserved for the use and enjoyment of current and future generations. Conservation is certainly attendant to that preservation, but it’s not necessarily the primary goal (formally designated wilderness areas probably most completely fill that role at home); here, however, conservation is the avowed primary purpose of the national parks, and the instant sense of remoteness advertises the success of that mission.
Our final stop was Tram Chim N.P. in Dông Thap province, to the northwest of where we had been previously. Tram Chim is transected by the same sort of arterial canals as the two parks we visited before, and again we enjoyed a tour of the Park by boat. Tram Chim is at the center of an ancient topographical feature in Vietnam called the Plain of Reeds, whose wetland ecosystem once covered more than 700,000 hectares. Though the Plain has long since diminished in size, Tram Chim exists as a lush example of the staggering biodiversity that it once supported. Unfortunately, climate change threatens to further reduce the Plain’s vitality, even inside Tram Chim, as changing rain patterns and increasing heat disturb the native plants and, in turn, drive away the resident critters. We were lucky to spot three of the elusive and charismatic Sarus Cranes as they dined on their preferred Eleocharis tubers, yet Dr. Trang, our instructor at Tram Chim, lamented later that the Cranes will become rarer still as the increase in summer rain drowns the Eleocharis and prevents tuber production. Tram Chim was a sobering example that the act of embracing conservation as a mission, though a necessary and laudable step, is only just a step. Here’s hoping the Cranes will still be around when the rewards of that mission are finally realized. Until then, though, Vietnam should be proud of the hard work it has already done to preserve its remaining natural spaces, and I believe I can speak for the group when I say that we take special solace in the fact that America’s best idea has contributed to a healthier, more sustainable Vietnam.