Many of China's hundreds of national parks and nature reserves are offering scant protection to fragile ecosystems, as the country faces the worst pollution levels in its history, experts said.
The phenomenon of "paper parks" is increasingly common, as the vision that created these areas becomes increasingly snarled in political, economic, and bureaucratic priorities, according to Henan-based environmental activist Huo Daishan.
Local governments are adept at retaining control over areas given nominal "protection" under central government laws, he said.
"According to what we are seeing on the ground, and from what the NGOs are able to observe, there is a huge gulf between [laws protecting parks and reserves] and the local government's implementation of them," Huo said.
"One aspect is the failure to implement the provisions of the law on the ground, and the other issue is the question of vested interests," he said.
"There are always local interests bound up with protected areas."
He said the process of designating a national park or nature reserve was influenced by the power of local officials at every stage.
"In the end, this entanglement ... this conflict between the designation of a protected area and local development interests, destroys the protected area," Huo added.
U.S.-based China scholar Li Hongkuan agreed.
"All of these national-level projects are proposed by people with vested interests in the first place," he said. "This happens a lot in China."
"And the moral quality of these people who initiate the projects is very low."
China currently has more than 2,500 protected natural areas, including more than 200 areas of outstanding natural beauty and 660 national parks.
In 1994, Beijing enacted the Natural Protection Law banning anyone from entering protected areas, as well as carrying out logging, agriculture, rearing livestock, or gathering medicinal herbs.
But since 2004, as many as 2.85 million people are believed to be living inside the boundaries of protected areas, recent reports estimate.
Many of China's designated "national parks" only exist on paper, with one in three lacking sufficient funding or management to run as intended.
But lack of money isn't the only problem.
According to Li, China is unlikely to succeed in creating its equivalent to Yellowstone Park in the United States any time soon.
"For protected areas to receive genuine protection, there has to be a high level of moral and legal education among the people living around them," Li said.
"It can't be done simply by relying on troop patrols and officials."
He said the idea of local residents sneaking into Yellowstone to carry out a little freelance logging or to hunt protected wildlife was unthinkable, but it is a common occurrence in China's parks and reserves.
"Many nature reserves have people living all around them," he said.
"Given the low level of environmental awareness, it's inevitable that they will damage these protected areas."
He said exploitation of national parks and reserves is also common in regions that are home to ethnic minority groups who had previously managed ecologically fragile areas using traditional beliefs and practices.
"In Tibet and Xinjiang, and in Inner Mongolia, there have been similar complaints, that traditional ways of life are under threat," he said.
"Now, people who have lived for generation after generation in the same place are facing the threat of its development," Li said. "They get very little benefit from it themselves, and often don't even receive compensation."
"Their quality of life suffers greatly."
More than three decades of breakneck economic growth have taken their toll on the country's natural resources, sparking a huge increase in public unrest linked to environmental degradation and health problems caused by pollution.
But activists who confront the authorities and vested commercial interests over pollution say they are often subject to revenge attacks and government harassment.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.