LAKE HÖVSGÖL NAT'L PARK, MONGOLIA
On the third day of a 10-day horseback expedition through some of the world's most pristine terrain, the travelers crest a mountain pass to discover an unimaginable vista: The Horidal Saridag mountain range lies before them like a sparkling jewel.
Few Westerners have seen the soaring peaks and felt the pervasive wildness here. But it isn't mere remoteness that deters them; hardly anyone even know this place exists.
Two Americans hope to change that. They arrived this July, literally and figuratively, to put Mongolia's fledgling national parks on the map. Jeremy Schmidt and Ted Wood, journalists from Jackson Hole, Wyo., established a nonprofit called Conservation Ink, with the mission of publishing maps and guidebooks for national parks in developing countries. After costs, sale proceeds will be earmarked for park projects.
The unique effort is intended to help impoverished governments protect their country's most treasured resources, while aiding economic development in a low impact industry. Mongolia is the pilot project; if their effort succeeds here, they will branch out to parks throughout the developing world.
The cofounders see tourism as an alternative to sacrificing natural treasures for resource extraction. "These parks have to pay for themselves. When you have a poor country that's developing, the pressures on resources are very real," says Mr. Wood. "The US is rare in that we have developed an aesthetic as a nation that values wild places for themselves."
In Mongolia, the national park system is in its infancy. While it encompasses some 50 million acres of land - about 1.5 percent of Mongolia's total land - most parks are only a few years old, and have little funding or infrastructure.
Hövsgöl park, designated in 1995, is one of the country's most visited. Yet its annual budget is just $23,000. That covers only salaries and operating expenses, with nothing left over for improvements.
Tourism could draw the needed dollars, but it could also adversely impact the unspoiled wilderness that attracts visitors in the first place. Even now, in heavily traveled areas along the lake, human impact is apparent: Discarded bottles and candy wrappers litter the ground at campsites.
While such effects may be inevitable, Wood says they can be minimized through education and management. "Tourism can be managed. But what do you do once a mountain has been strip-mined, or a forest has been cut down? Given the other pressures, tourism is the least damaging use."
The objective is to give the parks a chance to survive, he says, given immense economic pressures. "In the Third World, park boundaries are here today, perhaps gone tomorrow. It's very hard for these areas to just sit there with vast amounts of resource wealth when you have people who are either hungry or cold," he says. "If a park is making money and [is] not a drain on the central budget, then it stands a better chance."
Foreign tourists account for about half of the visitors to Hövsgöl. Ben Moyle, who operates two tourist lodges on Hövsgöl's lakeshore, says the area is popular with Europeans and Israelis, who come for backpacking and horse treks.
Hövsgöl is viewed as a key biosphere for species that have disappeared elsewhere in the world. The UN is expected to name the park as a World Heritage areasoon. The Mongolian government, meanwhile, wants Hövsgöl developed for ecotourism, but it hasn't set any policy for accomplishing this, says J. Tomorsukh, Hövsgöl's chief ranger and director of resource management.
This is frustrating, he says, because there are few trails or amenities for the 6,000 tourists who visit the park annually, and they tend to cluster in camps along the lakeshore, without ever seeing most of the park's 2.7 million acres. Although the park built a visitor center, funded by a US government grant, it houses few materials to help guide tourists. "People don't know what's in the park, or what places there are to see," says Mr. Tomorsukh.
This is the gap Conservation Ink aims to fill. Indeed, when the cofounders decided to tackle the project, they were responding to a plea from the Mongolian government. While attending a journalism conference in Colorado two years ago, they met Mongolia's environmental minister. "He told us that the greatest need for the parks in Mongolia was for publications," recalls Wood.
At that time, Mr. Schmidt had been traveling to Mongolia on assignments for almost a decade, while running a publishing company that produced guides for American parks. When he considered the request, the pieces fit, he says.
Soon after, he and Wood created Conservation Ink, following a successful model used by the US national park system.
Official maps and guidessold at US parks are produced by nonprofit associations, says Wood. "We thought, here's this model that worked in the US. Can we make it work in third world national parks?"
The question remains open; but the duo has high hopes. "The annual budgets for the parks here are tiny - only $20,000 (per park)," says Schmidt. "We could surpass that with our sales in a very short time."
To prepare for publishing, the team devoted July and August to fieldwork in Mongolia, including research, photography, and meeting with local stakeholders. Before the Hövsgöl leg, they spent several weeks in Altai National Park, where the landscape features 14,000 mountain peaks.
The two parks were targeted for their pressing needs: Visitation at each is rising, yet infrastructure is minimal. Traveling through Hövsgöl, the expedition crosses remarkably diverse terrain, from mountain meadow and larch forest, to frozen tundra and riparian areas. But marked trails and even an entrance gate are nonexistent, making it difficult for an unguided tourist to discover these landscapes.
Says Schmidt, "I think a lot of people go to Hövsgöl or Altai without even knowing they are in a national park."