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.