Drawing Boundaries on Conservation

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The trend toward setting aside land for conservation purposes has been accelerating in recent decades. More parks and reserves have been established since 1970 than ever before in history. Currently, more than 11% of the earth’s land has been set aside for protection, a land area that includes 16% of North America, 19% of South America, and an impressive 22% of Central America.

Despite these positive efforts to protect the planet’s diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems, the earth is on the verge of a significant extinction event that could be 100 to 1,000 times greater than any previous extinction since the dawn of humanity, according to the World Resources Institute. As more land is put under protection, and as the human race continues to grow, industrialize, and develop, many conservation laws may be abandoned in the years ahead. This dilemma has prompted observers to ask, How much land is necessary to ensure biodiversity?

One common approach to designating land for conservation has been to use percentage targets for protected areas, such as 10% of a tundra, boreal forest, or coral reef. However, according to Kathleen Mogelgaard, a University of Michigan population and environment specialist, the absolute size of global protected areas may be less essential than locating, designing, and managing them in a way that surrounding populations can support.

In her recent report for the Population Reference Bureau, Mogelgaard identifies four key problems to areabased conservation efforts and outlines several solutions.

* Problem 1: Rocks and Ice Syndrome. The boundary of a protected area is a political construction, sometimes based on criteria such as scenic value rather than ecosystem health. Some areas with low percentages of protected land also host the most-threatened species. Roughly 20% of endangered species are “gap species,” or animals that are not covered under any land conservation plan.

* Problem 2: Size Matters. The preservation of large areas of undisturbed land is important to maintain a genetically viable population of top predators, such as jaguars and harpy eagles, according to Mogelgaard. Top predators often require hundreds of thousands to several million hectares of land in order to survive and breed at self-sustaining levels. Of about 100,000 protected areas worldwide, only around 2,252 are adequately sized to enable the survival of top predators. A decline in top predators can have adverse effects on a given area’s ecosystem balance.

* Problem 3: Paper Parks. Many parks in developing countries lack management staff and, in some instances, are not even clearly marked, thus existing as protected land only on paper. “Most of the evidence for this phenomenon is anecdotal, and there is some research that indicates the paper park problem is not as serious as some would suggest. Nonetheless, the need for improved financing and management for protected areas is clear,” according to Mogelgaard.

* Problem 4: Fences and Fines. In contrast to undermanaged parks, overly rigid park enforcement can undercut support among local populations for conservation efforts.

“In striving to meet an area-based target, policy makers sometimes establish protected areas that are in direct conflict with the livelihoods of local people,” Mogelgaard asserts. She cautions that, without compensation for lost revenue, local people, particularly in impoverished areas, will have no choice but to violate protected-area regulations. Mogelgaard recommends that a cost-benefit analysis be part of the process for selecting land to be set aside. Furthermore, environmental organizations and governments should bolster existing efforts to incorporate local communities’ economic interests into conservation plans.

Protecting biodiversity in a time of increased resource consumption, overpopulation, and environmental degradation will require continued sacrifice on the part local communities, many of which already face resource shortages. Recognizing the immediate human costs to conservation will require greater empathy and humility on the part of conservationists, as well.

-Patrick Tucker

Source: How Much Land Should Be Protected For Biodiversity by Kathleen Mogelgaard. Population Reference Bureau, 1875 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 520, Washington, D.C. 20009. Telephone 1-800-877-9881. Web site http://www.prb.org.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST November-December 2006

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