Similar geologic formations and similar tourism statistics serve as the basis for a special kind of partnership between several US states and territories with counterparts in Asia: sister parks. These relationships are platforms for exchange of best practices in national parks management that cost little to nothing to the partners. The US National Park Service’s sister parks enable the sharing of scientific research and promotion of cultural exchange with Asian counterparts. Asian national parks also benefit from the United States’ century-long expertise with national park management skills, such as patrolling and educational outreach.
The most recent sister park relationship was established in early 2014 between Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Wudalianchi National Park in China. Not only do both parks share volcanic features, but also receive around one million visitors each year, which makes tourism an important factor in the exchange. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park also signed a sister park agreement with South Korea’s Jeju World Natural Heritage Site in 2008. The Hawaiian and Korean national parks are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making their conservation a global priority.
California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Cambodia’s Samlaut Protected Area share a partnership that dates to 2006. Approximately 7,000 Cambodian Americans live in the region of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, giving the park partnership an additional layer of intercultural connection.
Though more distant from the Asia-Pacific region, several eastern states also enjoy park-to-park relationships. In 2013, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee signed a sister park agreement with Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. A pivotal part of this agreement centered on how both parks address the challenges in balancing the preservation of biodiversity with tourism. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has hosted training simulations for Southeast Asian women park rangers. The training was designed to empower women to take leadership roles in park management programs.
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park has a sister park agreement with China, established in 2009. Comprised of three parks—Shilin Stone Forest National Park, Libo Zhangjiang National Park, and Wulong National Park— the South China Karst World Heritage Site and Mammoth Cave National Park share limestone karst formations, both of which are threatened by groundwater pollution and quarrying. The two parks benefit from the information and data exchanges that are part of their agreement, particularly in addressing water quality issues.
Other places in the US with these partnerships include Arizona, Utah, Virginia, and Guam, while Palau and Nepal are the other Asian countries currently enjoying ties to US National Parks. With clear benefits to park management, tourism, and environmental preservation, it is hoped that more parks across the US will find eager partners in Asia and elsewhere in years to come.
Nina Geller is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.