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Effort spanning decades turned bare land into tourist attraction

Wang Degong, a 73-year-old resident of Youyu county, Shanxi province - on the edge of the vast Ordos Desert - has seen the area transformed from barren land to a tourist attraction over the past six decades.

"There was only one wind a year, but it lasted from spring until winter," he said, recalling the powerful gusts and swirling sands of his childhood.

In 1949, when the People"s Republic of China was founded, Youyu had only a few trees, and the desert was expanding. Forest coverage was a minuscule 0.3 percent.

"I remember that we planted trees, believing it was the only way to reduce the desert and reclaim land for us to live," said Wang, adding that when he was 14 or 15 years old, students would dig holes for trees during a 40-day span in spring and autumn.

After 1949, the country"s leadership encouraged residents to plant trees. Now half the county is covered. Forest coverage was 51 percent last year, according to the county government.

"Our belief in planting trees has brought us more favorable living conditions," said Wang Zhijian, head of the county government, in September at the Trans-Century Tour of Chinese Environmental Protection, an event organized by the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People"s Congress.

At the event, Wang noted the significant benefits gained from the expanding forest, starting with improved weather conditions.

The average recorded wind speed in 2015 was slower than in 1985. Hailstones were recorded seven times a year in the 1950s and 60s, but only about once or twice annually in recent years, he said.

In 2015, the number of days with sandstorms was half that of the 1950s, according to the county forestry bureau.

"The continuous tree planting efforts also increased the incomes of the residents and lifted many out of poverty," Wang said.

At least 120 households currently make money through related businesses, such as selling seedlings and small trees.

Youyu county has the most land area in North China covered by Mongolian pine trees. Trees were planted across 216 hectares by about 332 residents, who earned an average of 5,160 yuan ($780), he said.

Another 394 residents are engaged in patrolling forest areas and protecting the trees, which also adds to their incomes.

The county plans to continue planting trees on suitable land, aiming to expand the coverage area to 58 percent of the total by 2020.

"Youyu"s success in planting trees and reducing desertification makes it a role model for other places and has made it a national ecological demonstration zone," said Peng Youdong, deputy head of the State Forestry Administration.

Increased forest coverage was specified as a target in the country"s plans for social and economic growth as outlined in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).

By 2020, China will expand forest coverage to about 23 percent, under the plan, and success stories like Youyu county"s offer valuable lessons for the national campaign, Peng said.

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(China Daily 11/06/2017 page5)