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Moving Mountains The long view: JHU researcher who once debunked a beloved Abominable Snowman myth now fights to keep development from gettings its footprints all over Asia's wild places.


FRANKLIN, W.Va. -- Back when Daniel Taylor-Ide was 11 years old, he grabbed his BB gun, dashed out of his parents' vacation bungalow and began to stalk the Abominable Snowman.

For most boys, this impulsive big-game hunt might have turned into a couple of hours harassing squirrels. But young Daniel was different. The son of a medical missionary working in India, he was vacationing with his family on the slopes of the 5-mile-high Himalayas. And he was tenacious: that impulsive decision to track the snowman launched a quest that lasted 30 years.

Returning repeatedly to the mountains in the next few decades, he skied over snowfields, climbed into its subtropical valleys and rafted surging rivers until he figured he had cornered the truth about the elusive creature, known as the yeti to Sherpa villagers.

About a decade ago, Dr. Taylor-Ide, a senior associate researcher with Johns Hopkins University's School of Hygiene and Public Health, made headlines when he concluded that the yeti's huge, human-like footprints were made by a species of bear.

Now, at the age of 50, he still returns to the Himalayas twice a year. Not to hunt the snowman. But to help preserve the mythical creature's vast, craggy habitat. Dr. Taylor-Ide is president, guiding spirit and visionary-in-chief of Future Generations, a conservation group that, with a membership of 50 and budget of $400,000 a year, aids Asian governments in setting up nature preserves the size of small nations.

Working mostly over the Internet from the springhouse behind his West Virginia home, Dr. Taylor-Ide's goal is sweeping but simple: to shield one of the wildest stretches of landscape on Earth from the booming economies of Asia. And his group hopes to do this while raising the living standard of the people who dwell among the peaks.

In the late 1980s, this lean, intense and impatient man helped the government of Nepal to establish a nature preserve called Makalu-Barun, (pronounced mah-KAH-loo BAH-roon) covering an area the size of Rhode Island.

Makalu is the world's fifth highest peak, and the Barun Valley, near Everest, is an exotic corner of the world, home to three species of leopards. In Tibet, a region of China, Dr. Taylor-Ide helped set up the Qomolangma (pronounced chomo-LOONG-ma) Nature Preserve, a park the size of Massachusetts. Four of the world's six highest mountains, including Mount Everest, lie within its boundaries.

For the past three years, Dr. Taylor-Ide has been working on creating a 30-million-acre park in southeastern Tibet, which would be the third-largest such preserve in the world.

Called the Four Great Rivers Nature Preserve, the park encompasses gorges formed by the headwaters of four of the world's largest rivers -- the Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze. These rivers help slake the thirst, carry the cargo and flood the rice paddies of 20 percent of the world's population, which lives downstream.

"Where the rivers come together, they form one of the largest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet," he says. "We're focusing on trying to preserve this biological core while Asia is booming."

Future Generations also hopes to persuade the governments of China, India and Myanmar to create a new nature preserve abutting the planned Four Great Rivers preserve. The combined area would be about the size of Italy, he says.

And it all started with the yeti.

When Dr. Taylor-Ide talks about the snowman, he says, people laugh and shake their heads. But they listen. "There is something in each of us that associates and resonates with this mythical pre-human," he says. "When I give a lecture, I can feel it. It's palpable."

The reason, he says, is hard to explain. But it's easy to feel.

"I think if you slow down for a few minutes, you'll sense it inside of yourself. Everybody does," says Dr. Taylor-Ide, a mountain-climber, skier, river runner, pilot, small-plane builder and exotic-dog breeder. "Everybody has their own sort of bond with wildness. We've spent most of our past as wild animals. For only 5,000 years out of the past 3 million have we had civilization."

Unmaking the myth

In the 1950s, European climbers reported discovering huge footprints, and hearing tales of the yeti from villagers. Some scientists speculated that it was a new species of primate, an evolutionary branch of the hominid family descended, like man, from the apes. Somehow, they figured, it had adapted to living in the cold thin air of the world's tallest peaks.

Skeptics, though, long suspected that the footprints were made by a lowlands bear that occasionally climbed into the snow looking for food. Maybe, they said, the animal ran in such a way that its hind paws landed in the impression made by its front paws, creating the illusion of a two-legged creature.

While a high school student at Friends School in Baltimore, Dr. Taylor-Ide discussed the yeti sightings with his history teacher, Robert A. Nicols. "He was wonderful," Dr. Taylor-Ide recalled. "He had stumbled onto the Abominable Snowman earlier [in his readings]. I could talk to him about this. He totally believed in it."

Dr. Taylor-Ide went on to earn an undergraduate degree in Russian from Johns Hopkins, and a doctorate in development planning from Harvard. At various times he worked in a ski shop, studied classical guitar and served as a development planner for the State Department. (He speaks Nepali, Hindi, Urdu, Russian and English.)

Dr. Taylor-Ide studied the literature on yetis. On vacations, he hiked through the mountains, listening to villagers' tales. He talked with taxonomists and scrutinized bear skulls with experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

Finally, in the mid-1980s, he announced his anti-climactic conclusion: the fearsome snowman was really just an Asian black bear, Selanarctos thibetanus.

A Tokyo newspaper headline summed up the worldwide reaction: "Rats, the Abominable Snowman is a Bear." Dr. Taylor-Ide was regarded as a killjoy. "People didn't want the Abominable Snowman identified, discovered," he says.

Toward the end of his search, Dr. Taylor-Ide ran across a friend from graduate school, Shah Dev, the king of Nepal.

Shah Dev suggested that his time would be better spent working to preserve the Himalayas. Dr. Taylor-Ide seized on the idea. On visits to the mountains, he said, "I'd come back year after year and see the forests disappearing."

Friends describe Dr. Taylor-Ide as innovative and passionate. He has, they say, a quick mind with little patience for rules and regulations. And he can be uncannily persuasive in selling people, foundations and governments on conservation.

"He has a certain intuitive feeling about political opportunity, for seizing the moment," says William Chan, a Baltimore architect who led the team that designed the visitor's center for the 6.5 million-acre Qomolangma preserve.

"He's a spellbinding conversationalist," says Jim Underwood, who has known Dr. Taylor-Ide since they were both teen-agers. "He's always coming up with new ideas. Nine-tenths of them are impractical. But the 10th one is a real gem."

Dr. Taylor Ide speaks in superlatives, and likes to think big. Future Generations, he says, has a "new macrovision" for Asia. "Our lifestyle," he says, talking of industrialized nations, "is based on an extractive, exploitive relationship with the world."

He comes from a family that has long mixed a passion for adventure with a zeal for performing good works.

His grandfather was a cowboy who quit punching cattle in Kansas to preach the Christian gospel, and practice medicine, in India. His father is Dr. Carl E. Taylor of Baltimore, professor emeritus of public health at Hopkins, who was a member of the first western expedition to reach Nepal in 1949.

He founded Hopkins' Department of International Health, and served as a United Nations health adviser to the Chinese government in the 1980s.

(Daniel Taylor-Ide appended the last name of his wife, the former Jennifer Ide, to his own after he married.)

Dr. Taylor-Ide's mother, Mary Taylor, an educator, raised her family in exotic lands and then taught education at Towson State University for 20 years. Betsy, his sister, works in India as an anthropologist. His brother Henry, a pediatrician now earning his public health degree from Hopkins, was recently named West Virginia's public health commissioner.

Dr. Taylor-Ide's conservation work began in 1972 in West Virginia. With a group of friends, he helped arrange the purchase of 400 acres on nearby Spruce Knob Mountain, to stop it from being developed as a golf course.

Members of his group later built yurts, Mongolian-style homes, on the property, creating a small community of like-minded environmentalists.

At the same time, Dr. Taylor-Ide and Dr. J. King Seegar -- classmates at Baltimore's Friends School -- launched the Woodlands and Whitewater Institute. At first, the institute ran nature education programs for private schools in Baltimore and other cities.

Later, the institute changed its name to the Woodlands Mountain Institute and expanded its mission, providing programs for juvenile delinquents and sending Hopkins medical students abroad to perform public health work.

For years, Dr. Taylor-Ide served as chief fund-raiser for the group. But in 1985, he became the institute's president and plunged it into the task of creating Himalayan parks.

By all accounts, Dr. Taylor-Ide was not a graceful executive. "I was better at doing stuff than supervising other people doing it."

In 1992, Dr. Taylor-Ide upset Institute staff when he unilaterally agreed to changes in a Qomolangma construction project that would have cost his group an additional $25,000. Other grievances surfaced, and he left the group. A short time later, he founded Future Generations and picked up where he had left off.

Before and after

Before the Qomolangma preserve was set up, Dr. Taylor-Ide said, the slopes of Everest were littered with plastic and tin cans, abandoned equipment, even the frozen bodies of climbers who died during expeditions. Villagers were clear-cutting the area's forests and hunting its wild animals. And the Chinese government was planning to build a road to bring the modern world roaring into the region.

After Qomolangma was established, he says, the road was stopped, trash removal began, village councils began enforcing

logging and hunting rules. Tourism fees pay for its operations, and fuel the region's economy.

In establishing parks, Dr. Taylor-Ide says he is just as concerned about economic development as with environmental protection. If timber cutting is banned in an area, he said, villagers should be aided in planting orchards or starting tree farms. And the people who live in the parks should run them.

With a United Nations grant, Future Generations is training a cadre of village welfare workers to provide basic health care, do conservation work and launch agricultural and other income-generating projects. Future Generations also helped launch a Tibet-wide ban on the sale of wild animal pelts and horns.

"It's fun to be doing something with this much of an impact on the future," he says.

Time to Dr. Taylor-Ide is precious. The conservationist and his wife teach their three children -- Jesse, 15, Tara, 12, and Luke, 8 -- at home, a white farmhouse with red shutters in a country hollow.

He raises Tibetan KyiApso dogs and publishes a newsletter about the breed. He's also building a stubby-winged Defiant Canard aircraft in his garage. On business trips, he still finds time for river rafting or mountain climbing.

On his most recent trip to Tibet this fall, he says, he and Jesse climbed a 21,800-foot peak, called Karze, on the eastern flank of Everest. ("It's only been climbed once before," Dr. Taylor-Ide says.) Then Jesse, a snowboard instructor at a local ski school at home, snow-boarded almost a half-mile down the face of the mountain.

But mostly, Dr. Taylor-Ide puts in 50-hour to 60-hour weeks in his office -- a garage-sized space with big windows overlooking a field where Stonewall Jackson's troops once camped.

He's come a long way from his days stalking the yeti with a BB gun. But there is still something of the big-game hunter in Dr. Taylor-Ide, itching to come out to play.

Recently, he says, a cougar jumped across the hood of his car as he drove down a mountain back road near his home.

State wildlife officials deny that any mountain lions live in West Virginia. But Dr. Taylor-Ide knows better. This time, he says, he's seen the creature with his own eyes. This time, he says, the skeptics are wrong. "We have mountain lion here," he says quietly, with a broad grin. "I know we have mountain lion here."

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