“Look! There are bharals on our right side!” Ge Yihong shouted on a vehicle heading to Helan Mountain in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Three bharals were drinking water leisurely by a creek. In the distance, there was Helan Mountain covered in a shade of green.
Ge, 60, is the head of a sanitation station in Shitanjing neighborhood, which sits in the hinterland of Helan Mountain in Dawukou district, Shizuishan of Ningxia.
Helan Mountain is an important physical boundary in China and a vital ecological barrier in the northwest region of the country. It is also an important source of coal resources.
The mountain’s landform had been severely damaged since 1950s as a result of massive unregulated mining activities.
In 2018, a pilot project aiming at holistic conservation and restoration of mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes and grasslands officially kicked off on the east slope of the mountain, and three years later, Helan Mountain’s ecological and environmental governance was jointly recommended as one of the 10 classic examples of ecological restoration with Chinese characteristics by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Today, holistic restoration has been completed at 214 sites in and around the Helan Mountain National Nature Reserve, which cover a total area of 405,000 mu, or 27,000 hectares.
Ge was born and raised in a mining area on Helan Mountain, and has been working there since he grew up. The massive mining activities in the past were still a fresh memory for the man.
“There was no trace of red deer or bharals at all. The shirts we wore could be blackened fast by the coal ash. Local residents didn’t dry their clothes outdoor,” he recalled.
Since 2017, Ningxia has made huge efforts to restore ecology in Helan Mountain. All open-pit coal mines in mining areas were shut down, and the mining rights to 83 sites were canceled. Besides, 561 poorly managed and polluting small enterprises at the foot of the mountain were closed.
What followed was the treatment of mines. To prevent soil erosion, coal gangues that piled up nearly 100 meters were leveled and thus turned into “terraced fields.” These “terraced fields” were later covered with nearly 50 centimeters of earth, which helped the black and barren mountain gain the capability to grow vegetation. Besides, the original landform of the mountain was restored to lower the risks of landslides and debris flows.
Today, new “peaks” have been forged on treated areas. “They heal the ‘scars’ that were left. Only by sound treatment, can we have the possibility to further green the mountain,” Ge told People’s Daily.
Helan Mountain is a rock mountain covered by thin earth. Therefore, it’s uneasy to grow vegetation on it. The annual precipitation there stands at around only 200 to 300 millimeters, but the annual evaporation is more than 10 times of that. How to expand the green area became the top issue of treatment after mines were shut down on the mountain.
In 2018, forest authorities of Shizuishan, in collaboration with Ningxia University and other research institutions, launched a series of experiments on Helan Mountain and decided to plant cold-resisting, drought-resisting and salt-tolerant trees on the mountain, such as Korshinsk pea shrub, Salix cheilophila, Siberian elm, Pinus sylvestris and black locust.
Tree planting activities are now commonly seen in the treated areas and along the roads on the mountain. “We planted Armenian plums at the foot of the mountain in the previous years, and this year we plan to green the areas covered by coal cinders,” said Zhang Tingxie, head of an ecological forest farm of Shizuishan.
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