Remembering China and Tibet With Richard Wojt

The recent passing of Port Townsend’s extraordinary statesman Richard Wojt caused me to reflect on a remarkable trip that he organized. A delegation of 11 representatives from the Port Townsend business, government, and conservation communities, as well as myself, visited China and Tibet in September 2007. We were hosted by an extended Chinese family that included a cardiac surgeon from Seattle and her family members in various parts of China.

The Author at the Great Wall.

At a time now when relations between the U.S. and China are tense, it’s good to remember that the two countries have much in common, reflected in the generosity and friendliness of our hosts and the many people we met.

Women laughing – Ruong Huo village

We visited Beijing, Xi’an, Tibet, and rural areas outside Chengdu and Chongqing, flying home from Shanghai. Three weeks in all. In addition to seeing iconic places such as the Great Wall, we visited schools, a farm, hospitals, Beijing University, a baijiu distillery, a bamboo processing factory, a Tibetan monastery, and a vast salt lake on the Tibetan Plain.

China – Sichuan – Traffic squeeze, rural village

We even marched in a parade in a tiny rural village that then fed us a banquet. We met formally and informally with officials from the Chinese Communist Party, and were feted at lavish dinners on many nights. But it was the sheer sweep of history, art, landscape, and humanity in both China and Tibet that left the most lasting impressions.

China – Sichuan – Water buffalo plows field in mountains near Fubao
Tibet- Parasol at Nam Tso saltwater lake

I was asked to prepare a presentation on conservation issues, and wrote the following speech. I delivered it at a meeting with Party officials in Hejiang County, southeast of Chongqing. I went last, at day’s end when everyone was tired and the Party Chair had already left. I wanted to honor our hosts, so I’d asked a translator to teach me how to say the first two sentences in perfect Mandarin. When I delivered those two sentences, the appreciation in the room was palpable.

China – Laundry, peppers drying, Yao Ba village

That evening, we dined with our hosts in a large hall overlooking the Yangtze River, and ended up singing American folksongs with a Chinese folk group. We took turns, alternating verses in English and Chinese. I was amazed that they knew so many of our songs. Every time I hear “Country Road, Take Me Home,” I’m transported back to that magical night. The folk group’s lead singer invited me to join their group (!!), and I replied through the translator, “I’d love to, but traveling to rehearsals will be a nightmare!”

The local Party chair arrived, sought me out, apologized for having left the meeting early, and asked for a copy of my speech. I said I would be honored to provide it, and our host said she’d translate it for him. Here is the speech I gave in 2007. It was right after visiting some spectacular nature reserves. I paused at every other sentence for the translator. 

(In Chinese) This is my first trip to China, and I hope it will not be my last. I’m amazed by the size and diversity of your country.

(In English) You have monumental landscapes, magnificent cities, and more than 30,000 plant, 500 mammal, and 1200 bird species –that’s more species than any other country in the world’s temperate zones. You also have a great diversity in your peoples. Although I’m here to talk with you about wildlife and habitat conservation in the United States, my emphasis will be on communicating with people, because it’s people and their attitudes and behaviors toward wildlife and wild places that determine whether they prosper or suffer.

Farmer, Ruong Huo village

First, an overview. In the United States we have local, state and federal ordinances, laws and regulations that protect and control the use of our fish, plants, wildlife and habitats. We have a national Endangered Species Act with 1600 listed species, a Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other wildlife-specific laws. You have a comprehensive Law on the Protection of Wildlife, which covers many of the same concerns. We have public lands in conservation units, such as Parks, Reserves and Wildlife Refuges, and so do you. Five years ago, there were fewer than 50 registered green NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in China, and today there are more than 3,000. That’s a sign that environmental awareness is rising, along with economic fortunes. Both of our nations’ public lands either suffer or prosper depending on the public support they receive. Only in the last decade did the U.S. legally clarify the wildlife-dependent public uses of our national wildlife refuges, and require every refuge to develop a comprehensive conservation plan. The compatible uses are: wildlife conservation; wildlife observation and photography, hunting, environmental education, and interpretation.

Tibet – Herding Yaks – Tibetan Grassland

Voices outside the boundaries of both of our countries are speaking out more and more on what we do, emphasizing the fact that we now live in a global commons. China has proposed lifting the 14-year ban on trade in tiger parts and products. The Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine profession in the U.S. came out strongly against it with testimony at a recent House of Representatives oversight hearing. Both China and the U.S. are experiencing population growth in cities, declines in rural areas, and an increasing sense of distance from nature. And because it’s hard for environmental programs to compete with other spending priorities, there never seems to be enough money to fully fund environmental needs in either of our countries.

If wild places are to survive into the next century after this one, then we must help those city dwellers develop a sense of belonging to something greater and more permanent than themselves. They will need a sense of connectedness to the land, even though their shoes may walk more on pavement than on pathway. They will need a sense of place, even if they only visit wild places in their imaginations. As the American philosopher Thoreau once said, everyone needs a place where they can cast off the baggage of civilization.

While preparing this presentation, I went to the internet with the question “What is wilderness?” I was surprised to find web sites on wilderness therapy for troubled teenagers, and several sites dedicated to ending the war in Iraq. It is inside the human mind that wilderness begins.

Tibet – Pilgrim at Nam Tso Lake

The U.S. is only two centuries old, but already many Americans feel a sense of loss intruding upon their appreciation of nature. But in China, you have a tradition going back fifteen centuries.  From Wang Wei to Han Shan to Yen Chen, your poetry celebrates nature’s calm, reflective waters and vertical landscapes.  Your music and art does, too. Nature is a recurring theme.  I have recently begun reading China’s poetry, and it is obvious that nature whispered in your poets’ ears and they responded.

In recent years, our sense of environmental loss has been reinforced daily, and it sometimes feels like development proceeds without regard to our natural world or to public health. However, in my country there is a lot of hope to counteract the despair, because there exists a large reservoir of environmental awareness, and it is beginning to make waves. This awareness is due to long-term public education partnerships and programs such as “Leave No Trace” that teach hikers and campers to pack out their garbage and leave nothing but footprints, and Riverkeepers, which promotes watershed partnerships. 

School Pool – Feng Dou Elementary School – The late Richard Wojt is on the right in blue shirt and tan shorts.

China has a deeply-rooted sense of place. Could that sense of place and history nurture a stronger sense of stewardship for its lands and waters? According to a 2006 study by the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association, environmental awareness of Chinese people scored low. The report says that during national holiday weeks, managers of many scenic places across the country have to cope with littering as numbers of tourists dramatically rise. It also says that 40 percent of the country’s waterways are seriously polluted, and about 300 million farmers lack access to clean drinking water.

How does one respond to the challenge of reaching modern city-dwellers who may not listen because they are swamped by the daily tsunami of continuous information overload? You do it by finding ways to get their attention in a busy world. 

Tibet – Prayer Flag Mound in High Pass, Himalayas, Altitude 17,025′

Start small, start with yourselves. It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. Communication is the psychology of perception, and for the people you may seek to influence, perception is reality. What’s in it for them to listen to you? First ask yourselves what you need from them. To find out, inventory your assets: your people, places, projects and processes. Within this inventory is a baseline biological assessment, so the public can appreciate the value of nature reserves as their ecological heritage, not just a source of raw materials. They need to know what lives there in order to care about it.

Second, always base your communications and outreach not on assumptions you make from within your organization, but from feedback you receive from interested groups outside it. Identify your top priority audiences. Focus groups that have opinion leaders from different sectors of the public are valuable as conduits of information, both incoming and outgoing. They can help you refine your messages to audiences that you might otherwise not reach or influence. 

Third, remember that one size does not fit all. Target your audiences and tailor your messages to specific groups of people. Develop a set of basic messages and weave them into everything you do.

Tibet – Young woman at Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Fourth, tell your stories. Nothing resonates better with people than a biologist in the field talking about challenges and successes with wildlife. Find creative ways to tell your stories. Form an internal communications team, and identify external communication nodes to which they can link. Get this team trained in communications methods.

Fifth, invite the public to participate in your activities where possible. Form partnerships with NGOs, user groups and other stakeholders, and hold forums where the public’s voice can be heard. But don’t stop there. Get people outside, on the ground, doing things alongside your staff. Hands-on involvement is the thing that will change attitudes and behavior. It means being outdoors, up to their ears in mud, and feeling that they are making a difference with their actions. Find opportunities for this and you will find people making fundamental connections to the land and species that live on it. 

China – Red Peppers, Ruong Huo village

Sixth, remember where you started, with a focus on yourself. You probably have many responsibilities to juggle all at once, and it’s easy to forget to take a little extra time for people. Whenever you interact with people, remember these:

1. Listen.

2. Explain your intent.

3. Say it clearly and completely.

4. Translate criticism and complaints into requests – by this I mean find a common ground before you criticize or complain, and whenever you receive any criticism.

5.  Ask open-ended questions, such as “What kind of information do you need to move forward?” or “How could I modify this proposal to meet your requirements?”

6.  Thank people – express more appreciation.

7.  Practice “management by walking around.” Get out of your office and talk to people.

Seventh and finally, evaluate your results and recalibrate your efforts as needed.

You start with clarity and transparency in your intent, actions, and communications. You augment it with information, education, outreach, and on-the-ground activities. You get understanding, awareness, and skills that lead to people caring enough to make small changes in their attitudes and behaviors. These add up. Often it can lead to active public support for conservation, and vocal opposition to threats. The environment is also a public health issue; if the environment wins, the public wins. By doing these seven steps you can foster a culture of openness, public pride, and stewardship for the land. It’s for the next generation, and the next, and the next after that. These steps can help you to increase support, manage expectations, understand stakeholders, and communicate strategically.

Wilderness begins inside the human mind because it represents qualities we long for in our busy, stressed-out world: solitude, reflection, freedom, self-reliance, humility, restraint, and other values as yet uncaptured by language. Even people who are afraid of animals can still understand and appreciate these values. For your nature reserves, helping people make those connections between a sense of place and history, a state of mind, and saving a priceless piece of nature is a continuing challenge with infinite reward. Thank you.


I’d like to think that my speech might have helped a little with efforts to conserve China’s considerable natural diversity, and I will always be grateful to Richard Wojt for giving me the chance to go there.

Tibet – Elderly woman walking to spin prayer wheels, Lhasa
The late Richard Wojt


  1. I’m always amazed to learn about more of your life experiences. What a great opportunity you had during this trip to get to know people from a totally different society at the time than ours, yet so similar in many ways. Your speech was spot on, and the photography absolutely gorgeous.

  2. “The last great exploration on Earth is to survive on Earth.” Robert Swann.
    “In the darkest of times, it is easiest to imagine another world.” Kate Raworth

    It is very strange times when random acts of kindness become revolutionary acts.

    Chinese proverbs, Westernized.
    The difference between desert and bounty is not water but [enlightened]* man. [Me]*
    Before enlightenment , cut wood, carry water. After enlightenment, cut wood, carry water.

    Attitude does make a difference though. [Me]

    Thank you, Karen

  3. Thank you. A wonderful story. And your advise could be a primer for all manner
    of community and governance activities. So thoughtful and clear.
    Julie Jaman
    Quimper Peninsula

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