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Global Family Affair: Sequoia Park Finds Sister in Cambodia

A struggling park halfway across the world has turned to Sequoia National Park for help in preserving a war-torn region that covers thousands of acres of rain forest and is home to some of the last Asian elephants and Asiatic bears on Earth.

Cambodia's Samlaut park was a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 10 years ago, and today its future is threatened by poachers, loggers and public indifference.

On Tuesday, Cambodia's environmental minister, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and the superintendent of Sequoia National Park signed a "sister park" accord under which the two parks will exchange expertise on park management, resource protection and wildlife preservation.

Cambodia plans to send a delegation of rangers to Sequoia early next year to learn more about the park's administration, its technology and its volunteer programs. The two parks were paired because both are largely forests and host many endangered species.

The National Park Service has a long history of international collaboration, and at least 32 U.S. parks have "sister park" relationships with 18 nations.

Yosemite National Park signed such an accord with Huangshan National Park in China in May, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area has collaborated with Parks Victoria in Australia for many years.

Park officials said such relationships allow them to share expertise with parks that share similar features, face similar problems and serve similar audiences.

"There's no question there are things we can learn," said Mike Tollefson, superintendent of Yosemite. The park will host a delegation from Huangshan this winter. "There are a lot of opportunities in both directions."

Never before has Cambodia sought such help, and never before has the United States' second-oldest national park mentored another park.

"This provides us with a blueprint for our efforts to protect Samlaut," said Mok Mareth, Cambodian minister of the environment. "We look forward to working with our new partner to make Samlaut a national park."

The National Park Service stressed that the relationship will be mutually beneficial although it clearly favors the country with little experience in environmental preservation and few resources with which to pursue it.

"Samlaut is the little sister, no doubt," said Stephan Bognar, executive director of the Maddox Jolie Pitt Project, the nonprofit organization actress Angelina Jolie founded to preserve Samlaut. "We have so much to learn from Sequoia."

The 148,260-acre park is in Cambodia's Battambang province in the country's northwestern corner. It is hilly, much like Mount Diablo State Park, and coursed by rivers that provide one-third of Cambodia's water. In contrast, Sequoia covers more than 400,000 acres.

Cambodia, which has seven national parks, granted Samlaut some protection in 1993 when it declared the region a "multiple use area," limiting logging and other activities in an area home to elephants, bears, Sumatran tigers and the Javan rhinoceros.

For political reasons, the government has been largely unable to enforce the regulation, and environmentalists said logging, poaching and mining are rampant. The region has already lost 40 percent of its timber, by some estimates, and it is littered with land mines and other ordnance left behind after three decades of civil war.

The Maddox Jolie Pitt Project -- named for Jolie and actor Brad Pitt's adopted Cambodian son -- has hired 30 rangers since 2003, started a survey of the park's wildlife and launched a campaign to educate people about the need to protect the park.

Bognar approached the National Park Service last year to enlist its help.

"We realized that we needed to form an alliance to better secure Samlaut's future," he said. "Sometimes you need to look outside to increase conservation inside." Sequoia National Park was the obvious partner, park officials said, because the two parks were created to protect valued forests and important watersheds.

Craig Axtell, superintendent of Sequoia National Park, said he is particularly interested in how Samlaut addresses timber poachers, because some of their tactics might be effective in curbing marijuana cultivation within Sequoia.

"We see this as an opportunity to learn from each other," he said, adding that he'd like to send rangers to Cambodia. "We're going to share skills and knowledge."

The two parks also are linked culturally. Some 7,000 Cambodian Americans, many of whom fled Cambodia in the 1970s, live in the communities surrounding Sequoia. "All of us see this as renewed friendship between our two countries," said Sopheaktra Nou, executive director of the Cambodian Reconciliation Committee, a community nonprofit in Fresno. "This will help our country heal, create a park all the world can see and help us protect and preserve our culture."