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Interdisciplinary Research in Jiuzhaigou National Park, China


This June, Lauren Urgenson, Cohort III trainee, traveled with an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students from the University of Washington (UW) to Jiuzhaigou National Park (JNP) in Sichuan, Province China. The purpose of our trip was to collaborate with Sichuan University (SU) and JNP science staff on research examining past and present human-landscape interactions. Professors Tom Hinckley (Forest Resources) and Dick Olmstead (Biology) led the UW group, which included students in biology, botany, conservation, ecology, anthropology, economics, geology and archaeology.

The research was part of NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program on “Multinational Collaboration on Challenges to the Environment” (MCCE). This specific IGERT is designed to provide doctoral students with interdisciplinary and cross cultural awarenessness needed to address complex environmental problems. The program began with an exploration of trans-boundary environmental issues in Washington and Canada; followed by a year long seminar on interdisciplinary and international research and education; and culminated in the China trip. Jiuzhaigou National Park is ecologically and culturally phenomenal. Located at the northern end of the Minshan mountain range, it is renowned for its high mountain peaks (over 15,000 feet high) and karst topography that create a unique landscape of abundant waterfalls and crystal blue lakes. “Jiuzhaigou” means nine-village valley and historically, there were nine Tibetan villages in the area. Today three of these villages have been abandoned, while two have fewer than 10 people. In accordance with Jiuzhaigou National Park’s designation as a United Nations World Heritage Site, most of the traditional agricultural and pastoral practices within the park have ceased and the remaining villages have moved to tourism as a primary source of income. Future land use in the park is also changing as tourism numbers skyrocket (approximately 2,100,000 people visited in 2006 and 2,700,000 in 2007 [the May 12, 2008 7.9 and 138 other earthquakes have closed the park for 2008]). Considering these factors, JNP provides an ideal case study for studying the conservation, human ecology, and sustainable management of protected areas around the globe.

I was part of the vegetation monitoring research team, composed of ecology, botany and geology students from UW and SU and park science staff. Our goals were to assess current biodiversity across various habitat types and test a methodological framework for long-term vegetation monitoring in JNP. Long term monitoring will enable the park to track vegetation changes over time, assess the effects of tourism and restoration policies on park environment and biodiversity, and allow for the early detection of non-native invasive plants. Monitoring plots are most useful if standard methods are used to re-measure the plots every 3-5 years, and we worked closely with park staff and SU students to ensure continuity.

During Autumn and Winter Quarters of 2007 and 2008, two staff from Jiuzhaigou National Park were visiting students at the University of Washington. I, as well as other, IGERT students who had traveled to Jiuzhaigou in 2006 and 2007, helped to host these staff. It was a great way to reciprocate and to achieve closure on our research trip.

Address Goals

Students are exposed to another culture, another language and other disciplines (i.e., learning). Ecologists trained in the United States shared many similarities with ecologists trained in China, but there are important cultural and place-based differences. The research problem was demanding requiring both disciplinary and group management skills (i.e., learning). In order for the research problem to be truly interdisciplinary, three schemes were developed and used. First, a detailed proposal was written by project where projects had to be integrated around the broad theme of human impacts on the environment. Second, each day ended with a project team presentations, cross-project discussions and then proposed activities for the next day. Third and most critical, each evening, one team member from one project would spend the next day with a different project team (i.e., the Natural Resource Economist would work with the Ecology or Anthropology Team, etc.). Teams were responsible for project papers and presentations (i.e., learning and discovery). All teams were responsible for a synthesized group summary.