Tourism Stripping Everest's Forests Bare

Travel Watch
By Finn-Olaf Jones
National Geographic Traveler
Updated August 29, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every Friday.

When I first visited the Khumbu in 1951 the forests were superb—big trees up to an altitude of 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) and extensive areas of azaleas and juniper shrubs…up to 16,000 feet [4,900 meters]," recalls Edmund Hillary in his book, View From the Summit. Ever since Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of Mount Everest from Nepal's Khumbu Valley, the area has attracted visitors. But things have changed. Now, much of the upper Khumbu is an eroding desert, in part because more than 25,000 trekkers come here yearly. A few attempt the summit, but thousands simply want to enjoy the breathtaking mountain scenery and legendary Sherpa hospitality.

Most visitors arrive by prop plane from Kathmandu, landing uphill on what used to be a grassy airfield in the village of Lukla, at 9,350 feet (2,850 meters) in the Himalaya. In 2000 the airfield was paved to allow planes and helicopters to bring in more tourists—a mixed blessing for the region.

"The Khumbu has already reached its saturation point in terms of the number of trekkers it can take," says P. T. Sherpa, director of KEEP, the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project. "Trekkers are facing bottlenecks on eroding trails, crowded teahouses"—the Sherpa homes for overnight guests—"and litter from discarded water bottles and soda cans."

But perhaps the biggest crisis is massive deforestation, as the growing numbers of trekkers generate demand for firewood and construction material. The only sign of the magnificent forests that once thrived here are a few trees on sanctified grounds at Buddhist monasteries—and the wide floorboards in older teahouses.

"Do tourists who come here consider what their need for hot water costs in terms of wood?" asks Gian Pietro Verza, field manager at an Italian environmental research station near one Sherpa village. "One trekker can consume an average of five times more wood per day than an entire Sherpa family uses—and the porters and guides they bring with them need firewood, too."

Teahouse keepers and porters now scurry ever farther down-valley to retrieve timber from the descending tree line. Even when outfitters use gas-burning stoves to cook for their Western clients, often their porters still huddle around fires from increasingly rare juniper bushes.

"The government and trekking agencies should distribute kerosene," says P. T. Sherpa, pointing out that impoverished guides and porters simply can't afford it.

There is hope. KEEP has already helped a special conservation program on the popular Annapurna trekking circuit to replace wood with kerosene and hopes to do the same in the Khumbu. And Hillary's Himalayan Trust, run by Sherpas, has funded the planting of more than a million seedlings on the slopes beneath Everest. The large-scale forestry program is an effort to provide stable soils, habitats for local fauna and flora, and sustainable forest products for the local people. Locals also helped clear the slopes of hungry goats—not a traditional animal of the Sherpa—to protect the newly planted trees.

With cooperation from the Nepali government, private organizations, and visitors themselves, the Khumbu could bloom again. If you go to Nepal, P. T. Sherpa advises the following:

• Choose a trekking agency that uses only kerosene—for everyone, including porters. Patronize teahouses that use kerosene and encourage others to start.

• In teahouses, order local dishes such as dal-baht (a stew of rice, lentils, vegetables, and potatoes), which take little fuel to cook. Place all your orders at the same time to minimize cooking time.

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