A few days backed I asked readers to send me a copy of a (subscription-protected) New Scientist story that tantalizingly promised to cover "the biggest ecological project the world has ever seen."

Well, thanks to the magic of the worldwide internets, I now have a copy of the story (thanks Mike!).

Here’s the deal: Every spring, winds kick up and start blowing dust off the plains of Inner Mongolia and northwestern China. This is a natural event — been going on for millions of years — but overgrazing and deforestation have dramatically increased the amount of dust and the damage it does:

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Dust storms cause destruction on the scale of a serious earthquake. They can kill people and livestock, destroy crops, and force whole communities to abandon their homes.With dust-laden winds blowing at up to 100 kilometres per hour, people in large parts of China stay indoors with the windows firmly shut for weeks on end during spring. When the storms have passed, they emerge to find trails of dust beaten into the windowpanes. In Korea and Japan, dust blown from China has closed airports, turned the rain brown and choked rivers and lakes with algal blooms. It has even found its way across the Pacific to hang as an orange haze over Colorado. China’s dustbowl is becoming a global problem.

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The Chinese government has been battling the problem since the 70s. First they starting planting thousands and thousands of trees to form a "great green wall" to slow or stop the dust. It didn’t really work, and in some cases did more harm than good.

Criticism led the Chinese to try some other things, like relocating nomadic families with large herds of grazing goats or covering the ground with straw mats or chemical glues. These didn’t really work either, and some of them drew international criticism.

So back to the drawing board. In 2003, an international project was born, involving the governments of China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea. The final version of their plan has just been published:

… the project team has identified four target areas in China, four in Mongolia and one straddling the border. In each, measures will be tailored to the specific type of landscape. Dry grassland areas will be reseeded and fenced off, and fodder plantations will be planted to feed livestock that formerly grazed there. In more mountainous regions, Chinese pine will be planted, and solar and wind energy will replace wood-burning as a source of energy. To compensate for lost farmland, new, more environmentally-friendly industries are proposed, including dairy farming, growing ginseng, selling sustainably grown willow cane to the paper industry, and ecotourism. In the cross-border project, a high-tech nursery and training centre will support efforts to reinstate the grasslands, and a sustainable forest irrigated with waste water will provide a model for future shelter-belt efforts.

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And this, good friends, is "the biggest ecological project the world has ever seen." Now you know.