The world map is peppered with patches of protected land, ostensibly ringed by clear borders that seem to safely shield our few remaining wild areas from human encroachment. But the reality on the ground is much messier. New satellite data show that across huge swaths of the planet—including America—the neatly cordoned “protected” areas are so exposed to pollution, industrial exploitation, and land degradation that they are virtually unprotected from anything.
An international team of researchers parsed global satellite data to reveal that many legally designated “protected” natural areas are directly threatened by expanding habitat destruction, displacement and destruction of local biodiversity. Researchers found that, worldwide, “6 million square kilometers (32.8%) of protected land is under intense human pressure.” Western Europe and Southern Asia were particularly under threat; satellite imaging revealed that “[o]nly 42 percent of protected land was found to be free of measurable human pressure.” That means in many of the world’s most densely populated and fastest developing regions, the majority of supposedly protected lands are besieged by the march of human progress—through our farming increasingly depleted terrains, hunting their endangered wildlife, or extracting resources from the ground.
Globally, the real-life footprint of habitat loss is spreading—more than half the areas designated over the past quarter century have seen increased human pressure. Overall, researchers warn we may be vastly underestimating both the ecological damage that’s already taken place, and the threats looming on the horizon
The “protected” designation covers everything from rain forests to grasslands to icy tundras. As a political instrument, the protected designation serves as the last line of defense in the effort to conserve nature and maintain biodiversity in an era when human societies are intermeshing with nearly every terrain around the planet.
Though the study doesn’t go so far as to suggest the label of “protected” is useless, it’s a call to environmental authorities to incorporate more extensive data mapping into their environmental monitoring to gain a more realistic picture of the nature and scale of surrounding environmental threats.
Though the United States has historically been a leader in wildlife conservation efforts, the Trump administration and EPA chief Scott Pruitt have steamrolled Clean Air and Clean Water Act regulations, while championing policies to spur the commercialization of public lands. The administration has directly attacked wilderness areas by working to strip protections from national monuments, such as the Bears Ears and Grand Escalante sites in Utah—which cover several million acres of iconic Western landscapes—while conservative lawmakers last year moved to promote oil drilling on the coastal plain of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trump is mirroring the assault on protected areas now trending across the globe: a steady creep of commercialization and deregulation, promoted by governments that seek to exploit and privatize whatever land has not yet been consumed.
The gap between formal maps and the actual landscape suggests that current laws and regulations are wildly out of sync with what’s happening on the ground. This is in part because of arbitrary, widely varying legal definitions of protection across national and regional borders. Moreover, the study’s analysis does not include longer term trends influencing the terrain, including human-induced climate change or conflict, which might have even more extreme long-term environmental impacts.
Yet, in every area impacted by humans, local air and water quality could be undermined by the sprawl of industry and transportation and the overarching pressures of continuous population growth. The impact of a single road’s cutting into a forested area could have a profound impact on soil and pollution levels. Even settling a small town could eliminate crucial range lands that grazing species rely on. Razing forests for farmland could displace critical species and stifle local biodiversity. When food chains are disrupted, animal and plant life could be devastated, and the consequences eventually reverberate in human communities, destabilizing societies and economies locally and then globally.
According to researcher and co-author of the study Kendall Raward Jones of University of Queensland, “The impacts we are finding are in many cases not sustainable—we’re talking about cities, massive road and railway projects, industrial agriculture, etc.” Often these are government-supported infrastructure projects aimed at boosting economic development, and their conflict with regional ecosystems attests to the challenges of sustainable development in areas where populations keep demanding more space, resources, and transit networks.
It may be too late to turn back the clock on human development, but researchers hope the new data help governments chart a course toward a more sustainable regulatory regime. The more accurate data authorities have on the real human impact in protected lands, the better equipped society is to restructure environmental protections to place appropriate limitations on industrial and social activity in conservation areas dynamically, not just on a piece of paper.
According to Jones, regulators need to take a more three-dimensional approach to assessing the level of human activity on an area designated for official conservation: “I don’t think that human encroachment is inevitable. We know that protected areas, when well-funded and well-managed, can be very effective at stopping human activities which threaten biodiversity. The problem is that by focusing mainly on the size of the area under ‘protection,’ global conservation targets allow nations to get away with designating land as ‘protected’ while not actually following through with the regulations and enforcement needed to make these areas effective.”
We manage what we measure: Real conservation is possible only if policy-makers, scientists, and the public share an understanding of collective responsibility and how to balance human needs and ecological imperatives. It may seem virtuous for governments to label a piece of nature for “protection,” but it means nothing when the stroke of an executive pen can just as easily erase it into oblivion.