URUMQI, July 5, Xinhua -- Xinjiang has hired nearly 2,600 forest rangers after a government campaign to provide better salaries and perks for the invaluable workers.
Photo taken on Sept. 28, 2009 shows the enchanting scenery of the forests in autumn in Altay, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Li Xiang)
This rugged corner of northwest China has 25 state forests, protected for their role in containing desertification. Before 2012, they were run like companies with little state investment and had difficulty attracting staff to patrol the woodland, guarding against forest fires and illegal logging.
In that year, the companies were turned into nonprofits with full government funding. Higher pay, better housing and better working conditions have been powerful draws for new rangers.
"In some state forests, we renovated the rangers' houses. We also obtained new apartments for their families who live in cities," said Shi Geli, head of state forests in Xinjiang.
Forests are crucial in Xinjiang, where almost half the land is threatened by sand. Desert covers over 750,000 square km.
"The whole country will be compromised if the Xinjiang environment deteriorates," warned Zhao Shucong, director of the National Forestry Bureau, last year.
"We are doing everything we can to make sure the rangers do their job with conviction," Shi said.
In Tori, 100 km from Xinjiang capital Urumqi, Yang Jianye and four colleagues take care of 15,000 hectares of forest. Every day -- hail, rain or shine -- they drive into the wilds to check how saplings are growing and look out for fires and illegal woodcutting.
Yang himself was a lumberjack in the 1990s. "I could earn 100 to 400 yuan every month," he said. "I would chop down trees in winter and take the wood to market in summer. It was tough work."
Logging was banned in much of Xinjiang in 2005 and now there are only a few areas where commercial logging is permitted.
As a ranger, Yang is paid 3,000 yuan (about 500 U.S. dollars) a month, which he sees as a "good amount". The average house price in Urumqi is 8,000 yuan per square meter, but Yang had to cough up just 3,000 yuan per square meter for his. The government covered the rest of the cost.
"With better living and working conditions, we have every reason to do better," he said.
April to October is the rangers' busiest time, when fire is most likely. During that period they are required to reside within the district to which they are assigned.
This summer, Yang and his colleagues live in a three-bedroom house with a garage in the forest.
They need to have their wits about them. "On weekends, city folk from Urumqi come here to hike, barbecue and play," Yang explained. "Some of them drop litter. Their barbecues are a real fire risk."