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Friday, July 15, 2016, 10:05

Ranger gets second chance with his trees

By Liu Xiangrui and Liu Kun in Shennongjia, Hubei
Ranger gets second chance with his trees
Qiao Changsheng bears witness to Shennongjia's change from a "timber farm " to a nature reserve. (Liu Xiangrui / China Daily )

For Qiao Changsheng, 63, the dramatic change from getting satisfaction from hacking down more trees to devoting himself to guarding a natural forest was mostly a passive one at first.

Qiao, a former lumber worker in Hubei province's Shennongjia area, became a forest ranger there in 2000, when the government moved to protect the local forest resources.

Since then, the area has gradually changed from a famous "vast natural timber farm" into a national natural reserve and a popular tourist destination blessed with an attractive environment.

Qiao, who has worked in the area for 40 years, started as a logging road builder when he was 22. In the early years, the lumber workers went wherever the roads led them, Qiao recalls.

When his father retired as a feller five years later, Qiao took on his job. Lumbering back then was not only heavy manual labor, but dangerous, too.

Ranger gets second chance with his trees

Qiao and his fellow workers lived in simple, temporary yurts. Sometimes they needed to start working at dawn, and not rest until the trucks were filled. Some-times they even used torches to work at night.

"Almost everyone in the area depended on lumbering: 'No wood, no food.' We wouldn't feel sorry for the trees. The environment was never on our minds," Qiao recalls.

For years, the forestry industry was the main revenue source of the region.

During the peak years, there were more than 10,000 people working in Shennongjia, feeding more than 100 wood-processing factories.

Qiao could fell up to 2,000 cubic meters a year in his prime. Although he worked hard, Qiao still had challenges supporting his family financially, especially paying for his children's schooling.

Qiao saw how the region's thick virgin forests were gradually thinned after all the giant trees were felled. People just picked up waste trunks from the rivers for fuel, he recalls.

In 2000, the timber-cut-ting was halted and wood factories were all shut down. The main function of Muyu Forestry Center - Qiao's employer - has changed from felling the forest to protecting it, according to Zhao Pinling, deputy director of the center.

To better preserve the forests, residents were relocated outside the protected areas to more convenient places. Many former lumber workers like Qiao were made forest rangers, who are responsible for protection of forest resources and wildlife in the region.

Qiao explains that it took them a while to adapt to their new roles. When they saw some big trees, they'd still joke with each other about how much they were worth as timber, he says.

"But now as a protector, I regret that so many giant trees were cut down," he says. "What great benefits they could bring to the environment and tourism if they were preserved."

Now Qiao lives in a ranger station with 15 other rangers. Always with a chopper in hand to defend himself from animals and clear the path, Qiao and his colleagues patrol the mountains daily, an area of 8,000 hectares, to prevent fires and illegal felling.

Qiao says it's rough going on the mountain roads, which are prone to falling rocks and other natural hazards. His team members often need to maintain the roads themselves. In winter, they face cold weather and dangers including slippery ground after snowfall.

Qiao earns more than 40,000 yuan (US$5,970) every year, including his income from raising bees as a side-line.

He is encouraged by sightings of more wild animals, including rare species like leopard, in recent years.

"The protection work is paying off," Qiao says, adding that local residents who have benefitted greatly from tourism now pay a lot more attention to protection of the environment, too.

Set to retire next year, Qiao says he will miss his job as a ranger.

"I'll probably dream about coming back to the familiar places," he says, smiling.

Luckily Qiao's got a successor in his family. His daughter became a forest ranger in Shennongjia a few years ago. "In fact I supported her decision," says Qiao.

"Now there is less physical labor and the living conditions have improved a lot," he says. In recent years, modern technologies such as GPS tracking and drones are used to help with protection work.

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