AAAS: Making the Tough Decisions on Protected Areas

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I’m currently blogging to you from the Acela train en route to Washington for the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, otherwise known as nerdapalooza. (Just outside Philadelphia now, to which I can only say—go Phils!) I’ll have lots to write about today, over the weekend and early next week on the meeting, and on Sunday morning I’ll actually be speaking on the challenge of covering climate change and green technology.

But the papers and presentations are already pouring out of AAAS, including a fascinating one on how to triage global protected lands. Giving valuable land and water territories actual legal protection is one of the most important steps that can be taken to promote wildlife conservation and preserve forests. Just imagine what the U.S. might look like if far-sighted conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt had never set aside vast tracts of land for national parks. Right now 12% of the planet’s land surface has some form of legal protection, along with 6% of territorial seas (usually close to shore) and just 0.5% of the open oceans. That adds up to 130,000 protected areas, but it’s still far too little to preserve global biodiversity—especially as human populations and prosperity keeps growing, putting additional pressure on nature.

The good news is that at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity last year in Nagoya, governments pledged to protect at least 17% of land and inland water by 2020, while doubling protected coastal and marine areas. That sounds great. But just because territory is classified as “protected” doesn’t mean that it’s really protected. The legal status of sheltered territories varies greatly from country to country and even within national borders—in the U.S., protected areas can range from national parks where almost all development is off-limits to territory where fishing and even energy development is allowed. In developing countries there’s a major problem of “paper parks,” protected areas that are protected in name alone.

The chief obstacle, as usual, is lack of data. If scientists and policymakers knew more about what was happening on the ground, they might be able to craft more efficient conservation policies, providing real protection for the territory that’s most valuable for nature. It’s as if we’re fighting a war to save biodiversity, and we need to husband our resources around the areas that provide the most bang for the buck.

That’s exactly what the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre is trying to do with its Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA). It’s a set of distributed databases built on an open web system that will enable researchers and policymakers alike to monitor and model protected areas on a global scale—and identify when they’re coming under pressure. The system will also help experts identify new areas that are in need of protection, or chart wildlife corridors that could shelter species migrating to escape the effects of climate change. Nor will humans be left out—DOPA will combine data from wildlife with socioeconomic indicators, helping policymakers to—hopefully—strike a balance between people and nature.

It’s that balance that will be the real challenge going forward for conservation. As a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows, forests in particular will come under tremendous impact in the decades to come, as the growing demands on agriculture put pressure on farmers to expand their territory. The only way to preserve forests and other valuable territory for wildlife is to plan ahead and get out in front of globalization—and the best way to do that is through better and more connected data.