Saturday, August 8, 2020
Mongolians' Climate Change Threatens Culture
Mongolian gers typically feature a satellite dish and solar panel today.
Monday, February 3, 2020

Paul Ries went to Mongolia to help a country that is fast losing its larch forests.

But he returned with an appreciation of a culture so different from his own. A country where people's homes boast foot-wide walls made of wool. Where the diet is out of necessity meat, including donkey, yak, horse, sheep and goat.

And where thousands of people living in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar take to the hiking trails when it's 50 below...for very good reason.

Ries, who retired from the Forest Service after a 42-year career, will share some of his experiences in Mongolia during a free presentation accompanied by pictures at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at the Hailey Public Library.

Paul Ries will share his experiences with Mongolian culture and more on Wednesday.

Ries got the first invitation to lead teams of specialists to Mongolia in the fall of 2016 at the request of the U.S. State Department, which Ries said is mindful of preserving the democracy of a country sandwiched in between the former Soviet Union and China. Or, what the State Department calls "a democracy in a tough neighborhood," he added.

"They called the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., asking for volunteers who had the background they needed but were not government employees. And they said, 'Call Ries--he just retired,' " said Ries who retired as an U.S. Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief in Washington, D.C.

Ries and his cohorts flew back to the United States on Election Day, unaware that the new administration would slash funds for such projects.

But the non-profit International Conservation Caucus Foundation sent Ries and his team of fellow retirees from careers in natural resources back in late August and September 2019.

Paul Ries took Land Cruisers and Russian vans to survey the denuded forests.

Mongolia's forests are facing a number of issues, some of which are because of or exacerbated by climate change, Ries said.

And they're seeing a faster rate of climate change than most of the rest of the world because of being further north.

Their great grass steppe is seeing droughts like they have never seen before. At the same time they are getting more moisture during winter, which historically has been dry. And since winters are not as cold the precipitation leaves a crust of snow and ice on the ground, which hinders animals' ability to forage.

Extreme severe winters called dzuds that used to occur three or four times in a generation are now occurring every four to five years. And those are driving people from the land and their livestock.

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar features this equestrian statue of Genghis Khan.

And the few forests that Mongolia has are now ravaged by forests fires that are bigger, more intense and longer--nearly all of them human caused. Insects are deforesting large forests. And more and more people are logging illegally to supply fuel for home fires as more people move off the land into the cities.

"It's cold in the cities and they'll burn anything they can find from tires to plastic," said Ries. "People will take their seats out of their cars and drive them into the woods and load the car with wood that they can sell for more than forest rangers' annual salary."

The pollution from the burning of tires, plastic and even wood smells like sulfur, Ries said. And the haze from it hangs in the sky over the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

"The first time I went was in October and early November and even then the temperature was 12 to 15 below each morning. People kept telling me how lucky I was to be there now--that it would get worse as winter progressed. Even then I came home with a bronchial infection and had to be on antibiotics for a month."

Paul Ries was taken with the colorful Mongolian cabinetry.

Even more amazing, Ries, said was the number of people he saw hiking trails around the city when it was 40 or 50 degrees below zero.

"Winter's their big hiking season. They want to get up out of the pollution."

While in Mongolia Ries was ferried to the forests in Land Cruisers and Russian vans. "The vans  go anywhere and break down all the time but are easy to fix--that's why they like them."

They would depart the cities on two-lane roads that turned into gravel, then dirt roads. Before long, they'd drive on top of grass that grows a foot tall at most to get where they were going.

Few of the people spoke English but all were very friendly, he said. And boiled meat was abundant, although most of the time he had no idea what kind of meat he was eating.

"If we ordered a salad, we'd get a little tiny salad," he said, forming a circle about the size of a baseball with his hands. "They can't grow a lot of vegetables like we do."

Those who didn't live in the cities lived in what Ries recognized as yurts, their foot-thick walls made of wool and covered with plastic. But the Mongolians chafed at calling it the Russian name of yurt, preferring their term gers.

They were quick to serve visitors tea made of horse milk, meat bites encased in dumplings and dried yogurt chunks that keep without refrigeration.

"Life for them is hard but simple," Ries said. "It occurred to me that the world as we know it could end--Wall Street could crash, the power grid could fail--and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to them. The last five years of my career I worked in D.C. where two inches of snow meant the end of the world and where people wouldn't know how to survive if the power went out.

"There's no power to be had out there. Gers haven't changed in a hundred years, except for a solar panel to power a single light bulb and a satellite dish for a tiny LED TV that gets 32 channels featuring Chinese and Russian programs, along with BBC. And, amazingly, their cell phones work in the middle of nowhere--maybe because it's so flat."

Ries expects to go back to Mongolia to work to help Mongolians replant their forests and to learn to manage them with preventative fire and other tools, including biological controls for the insects that are killing the larch and even a Mongolian version of Smokey the Bear.

"It's such a big country with so few people that they never used to worry about forest fires," he said. "We hope we can help them learn to have well-managed forests  so they can do things like produce wood to burn instead of having to burn tires."


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