UPPER GASELO, Bhutan -- As forests around the world vanish, this secluded Himalayan kingdom is mounting a desperate effort to hold onto its trees.
Woodlands cover nearly three-quarters of Bhutan, a Switzerland-sized country nestled in the mountains between China and India. Surrounded by countries whose forests have been stripped, trampled and forgotten, Bhutan has embarked on one of the world's toughest environmental campaigns, aimed at preserving the country's spectacular natural bounty even at the cost of economic growth.
It is government at its greenest: More than a quarter of Bhutan has been set aside in national parks. Not a single tree -- on public or private land -- can be felled without approval. In an impoverished country where trees are the most valuable resource, logging is permitted on less than 5 percent of the land.
And in one of the most drastic measures yet, the export of all unfinished timber was banned effective Jan. 1.
In the West such laws might be seen as the product of a radical fringe, but in Bhutan the regulations are regarded as protecting an ancient way of life and the legendary abode of the gods. By virtue of its small size, isolated location and abundant natural gifts, Bhutan may represent the world's most promising place for environmental preservation.
"We know that we are lucky to live here," says Lopen Sono, a Buddhist monk standing outside his monastery at the 10,000-foot-high Pumola Pass, which offers a sweeping vista of western Bhutan. "Our country is a paradise."
Whether the Bhutanese experiment succeeds will depend on how well the country can deal with the pressures that have overwhelmed so many developing nations.
Threats to Bhutan's arboreal way of life grow daily. The Bhutanese, 70 percent of whom lack electricity, rank among the world's most prolific burners of wood. Bhutan also boasts one of the highest birthrates in Asia, prompting the government to launch an aggressive family-planning campaign.
What's more, the government's efforts to educate its nearly 2 million people is producing a generation of Bhutanese less wedded to nature and more covetous of Western comforts. A class of young business people, eager to prosper, is beginning to question Bhutan's nature-first paradigm.
"Times are changing. People are changing," says Tenzin Thinley, 18, dressed in a leather jacket at Dodo's disco in Thimbu, Bhutan's tiny capital. "We've seen MTV; we've heard the music. Kids are restless. There's nothing to do here."
To an outsider, the breathtaking wilderness of Bhutan inspires wonderment: Limitless landscapes of dark green trees roll toward the horizon in every direction. The forests are habitat for animals that seem to have stepped from a children's book: red pandas, white leopards, beastly yaks and huge, goat-like animals called takins. Trout-clogged streams run cold and clear, even in the capital.
Rising from just above sea level to altitudes of nearly 25,000 feet in the space of about 100 miles, the country forms a kind of giant stairway on the sheer edge of the Himalayas. Bhutan harbors ecosystems as varied as subtropical forests and alpine meadows, boasting 200 species of mammals, 700 species of birds and 2,000 species of plants.
"In terms of environmental conservation, this is the best place on Earth to be," says Jean-Claude Balcet, a World Bank economist who is overseeing a forestry project in eastern Bhutan.
Bhutan's experience stands in contrast to the environmental catastrophe that has befallen much of Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank, half of all the continent's forests have disappeared in the past 30 years.
Bhutan's 43-year-old king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has moved to preserve the country's environment at almost any cost -- even at the short-term expense of his subjects, who rank among the poorest in the world. The king, one of the world's last absolute monarchs, insists that Bhutan can have both a strong economy and bountiful green forests.
"We could have been like the other countries and sold our forests and made a lot of money," says Ugyen Tshering, Bhutan's foreign secretary. "But that would have been a short-term solution. We would still be a poor country, and our natural wealth would be gone."
The government of Bhutan micromanages the country's woodlands to a degree unheard of in the United States. In forests across the country, villagers are limited to gathering only dead or fallen trees for firewood. Each household is limited to one truckload a year.
To chop down living trees, villagers must secure the approval of local forest rangers. The rangers tramp into the forests and carefully mark the trees, usually old or dying ones, that villagers may cut. Violators are fined.
A typical Bhutanese villager is limited to three to five hardwood trees per year and, over the course of a lifetime, about 30 or 40 pines to build a house. In areas where forest rangers are replanting trees, no wood -- dead or alive -- may be taken. The goal is to allow only as much logging as the forest can naturally replace.
"If you want to build a big house in Bhutan, it's going to take you a long time," Thinley Dorjee, a forest ranger in Phangyoulgang Forest, says with a chuckle.
By law, forest cover in Bhutan must not fall below 60 percent of the country. But Bhutan's conservation rules don't end with the trees. Hunting is banned -- except when an animal wanders onto a farmer's fields. In order to keep their numbers down, foreign tourists who come Bhutan are charged $200 per day to stay in drafty, creaky hotels.
To control the birthrate, health workers fan out across Bhutan, some into villages high in the Himalayas, drumming the message that the ideal Bhutanese family ought to have no more than three children. In gatherings around the country, health workers offer sex education, birth control and financial incentives for men and women to be sterilized. They pass out buttons with a portrait of the king and a slogan: "Small Family -- Happy Family."
The message appears to be sinking in. Ugyen Den, a 30-year-old mother, has five children. But her husband recently took the $4 government reward -- a couple of days' earnings for a typical Bhutanese -- and had a vasectomy.
"The fewer children I have, the more I can give them," Den says.
She and her family live in Upper Gaselo, a high-altitude hamlet that hugs the verdant hills of the Phangyoulgang Forest. Here, even the poorest residents know that the forests come first.
"If the trees were given freely, people would cut everything," Den says.
The area around her home is carpeted with trees, yet they are off-limits to her and other villagers. The trees are part of a reforestation project, aimed at replenishing an area stripped bare years ago. Once a week, Den walks four hours to collect firewood, lugging 50-pound loads on her back.
"If this forest doesn't help us," she says, glancing at the newly wooded hills, "at least it will help our children."
Pub Date: 2/06/99