Ever since he traded his Marine combat boots for a pair of penny loafers and stepped from the mud of Vietnam to the cloisters of Harvard Law School, Ed Norton has been something of a specialist in tempering ironclad idealism with diplomatic savoir faire. Insiders like to recall how Norton, as head of the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff in 1987, clipped the wings of the air-tourism business while simultaneously charming Republican politicos into attempting to push no-fly-zone legislation through Congress. Now 56 and a senior adviser to The Nature Conservancy, the silver-haired Norton is about to begin what could be the biggest challenge of his life: acting as a point man in an audacious effort to build one of the world's largest networks of national parks in the most populous country on Earth.
When it is finally up and running sometime after 2005, Yunnan Great Rivers National Park will embrace three major waterways as they cascade from Tibetan glaciers to lowland forests, a vast wilderness wedged deep in China's remote Yunnan Province that is of inestimable value to conservationists. The 25,819-square-mile swatch, which dwarfs Yosemite by a factor of 20, hosts half of all plants used in traditional Chinese medicine and numerous pockets of endangered predators such as the snow leopard. "It's like you took all the wondrous diversity of California," says an American ecologist working in the area, "and squeezed it in a vise."
While a venture like this would be noteworthy anywhere, the fact that it is taking place in China, a nation tearing through one of the fastest industrialization phases in human history, is downright revolutionary. But after more than 3,000 people perished in last summer's massive Yangtze floods, Chinese leaders experienced an epiphany regarding the link between natural disaster and irresponsible ecosystem management. Thus their willingness to embark on a partnership with The Nature Conservancy that is being closely watched by environmentalists around the world.
This spring, the first order of business for Norton and his Chinese counterparts will be to select the most critical regions to be preserved, even though some have barely been studied. They must also forge alliances with hostile timber-industry interests, paper-pushing magistrates, and tetchy representatives from 25 ethnic minorities ù all while adroitly tiptoeing through the political minefields of China's inscrutable and ossified bureaucracy.
Norton, who moves to Kunming next month, pronounces himself "excited to be a part of it." Others, however, are waiting to see how the project will fare in a society that has virtually no experience with environmentalism. "I have to take this with a grain of salt," admits Doris Shen, a scientist with the International Rivers Network, noting the remark a Chinese official once shared with a colleague of hers: "Conservation is what you talk about only after you've had your meal."