December 31 is the deadline for a type of poplar tree to disappear from a conservation area at Dongting Lake, the second-largest freshwater lake in China.
Populus nigra, or the black poplar, is not native to the zone along the Yangtze in central China's Hunan province. The trees were brought here in recent decades to provide timber for paper mills.
The latest group of environmental protection inspectors sent by the central government ordered a cleanup of the trees by the year end. More than three million trees have been chopped down, said the Hunan provincial bureau of environmental protection.
Logger Chen Guangyao can cut down about 800 trees in a single day. "Years ago, I planted trees on this very land myself. Now my boss asks me to cut them down. The trees are said to have hurt the environment," Chen said.
The trees are bundled up and carried away by boats, barges, tractors and trucks.
Dongting Lake has been called "the kidney of the Yangtze River." It was among the first areas to be included in an international convention on wetlands.
The struggle between conservationists and exploiters has been going on for years at Dongting Lake. The poplars -- tall, strong and fast-growing -- first appeared at Dongting in the 1980s.
"That was the first time I saw the poplars. In flood season, other trees die, but not these trees. They seem to be stronger than most other local trees found near the lake," said Chen.
Starting in 2000, many paper-making factories opened and a poplar cultivation craze followed. The trees could be found at almost every corner of Dongting lake.
The trees were ecological assassins of the wetland as they hardened the soil and encroached upon bird and fish habitats. Logging operations used pesticides to keep the trees growing, but the pesticides led the soil to deteriorate, said Hu Yuanli, a senior official with the local people's political consultative conference.
"There was a time when almost no grass grew under the trees, and no birds perched on the trees. Great harm has been done," Hu said.
Despite opposition from experts, some local governments helped logging companies plant trees in an attempt to turn them into a constant source of profits, Hu said.
Besides poplars, Dongting witnessed several waves of agriculture and aquaculture, which put the environment in great jeopardy, he added.
Over the years, environmental protection kept losing ground to economic profit chasers, said Mei Biqiu, director general of the West Dongting Lake National Nature Reserve.
However, with strong supervision from the central government, environmental protection is becoming the priority, he said.
In July, the Hunan provincial government was criticized by environmental inspectors for its failing efforts to clean up the lake. The provincial government resolved to take action.
Fish, pearl farms and sand mines have been dismantled and cleaned up around the lake.
The populus nigra will disappear from the core area of Dongting Lake National Nature Reserve by year end.
"Such rapid tree-felling is impressive. Dongting Lake will be restored to its original beauty," said Wan Xianjun, director of wetland management in Yuanjiang City.
China is home to about 53.6 million hectares of wetlands, or 4 percent of the world's total. The area of wetlands along the Yangtze accounts for one fifth of the country's total.
Since 2011, the central government has invested more than 9 billion yuan (1.4 billion U.S. dollars) in wetland restoration and protection projects.
As a result, the country has seen an increase of two million hectares of protected wetlands and 160,000 hectares of restored wetlands.
"Cutting down other types of trees might draw disapproval, but eradicating the poplar from here is the right thing to do. It is time for the trees to return the habitat to birds, fish and other species," said fisherman Zhu Meili.