A condensed version of this letter by Professor John Leshy and Wyss Foundation President Molly McUsic appeared in The New York Times Opinion section under the headline "Saving Biodiversity in Protected Areas" on June 22nd.
Richard Conniff’s “The Protected Area Myth” (June 10, 2018) takes a dangerous “perfect is the enemy of the good” attitude that disregards how politics works. He discourages nations from creating new protected areas because, he says, perhaps a third of the world’s existing protected areas face “intense and increasing human pressure,” and because adding new areas gives nations cover to avoid addressing difficult challenges of protecting threatened places with particularly rich biodiversity.
Make no mistake, a good deal of the earth’s biodiversity is in peril, requiring strong action, made even more imperative by a changing climate. And there is no question that some protected areas around the globe are what is known in conservation circles as “paper parks,” which look good on the map but are woefully under-protected on the ground.
But we strenuously disagree with his notion that nations should be discouraged from designating new protected areas, and that conservationists should instead concentrate their energies toward “setting aside our profits and our precious convenience” to focus on threatened areas with the richest wildlife diversity, even though it “may seem like a stretch to imagine our self-indulgent species” ever actually doing so.
As Conniff notes, leaders of the world’s nations, like the rest of us, are “suckers for numeric targets,” such as the goal the world's nations established in the 2010 Decennial Convention on Biological Diversity, which called for 17% of each nation's area to be protected. He concedes that the target has motivated the nations of the world to double the acreage of protected areas around the globe over the last quarter of a century.
Now is not the time to turn away from a strategy that has produced such demonstrable progress.
In fact, we should be doubling down on a campaign with two simple objectives: First, increase the targeted goal in the 2020 Convention to "30 by 30," seeking to have 30% of the globe in protected area status by 2030. Second, step up efforts to motivate nations to provide meaningful protection for all protected areas, both new and previously established, through targeted financial assistance and by publicizing failures and retreats.
The history of protecting landscapes in the United States, from its beginnings at Yosemite and Yellowstone, shows the wisdom of this strategy. By today’s standards, many of America's early protected areas were, for years after they were established, “paper parks,” with mining and other industrial activities allowed. As more people came to appreciate their natural values, and scientific understanding grew, more protection was provided.
As this shows, designating areas to protect on the map has political power. Sometimes achieving genuine protection takes longer than we would like, but labels motivate both governments and the general public. Protected areas usually get more attention and more funding than other landscapes. Equally important, they more readily attract and inspire people to appreciate the natural world, making it easier to rally people to their defense compared to areas lacking official designations. Conniff cites the recent decision by Congress and the President to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum extraction as an example of "protected area" status proving to be empty. But despite the recent setback, that fight is far from over. Conservationists continue to resist the industrialization of this magnificent resource. They are helped in that effort by its official label as a Refuge, something politicians and petroleum companies and their investors cannot ignore.
Finally, Conniff’s piece unfortunately feeds the narrative, strenuously advanced in recent decades by deep-pocketed libertarians, that government can never be trusted because it is incompetent, corrupt or both. The reality is, however, that government is absolutely vital to successful conservation efforts almost everywhere. Conservationists need to make governments work better, not scorn them simply because they are sometimes slow and ineffective. Protected areas designated by governments are essential if we are to safeguard as much nature as we can, so that future generations may enjoy the planet's incredible richness.
--John Leshy is an emeritus professor of law at UC Hastings and former Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Molly McUsic is President of the Wyss Foundation, which funds efforts to designate and effectively protect landscapes around the globe.