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April 08, 2004

Adventures in Journalism: Chicken Little

Ten years ago, the goal of the Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa* as to set aside 10% of the Earth's surface as part of a global network of protected areas within the next ten years. According to a study published in the journal of Nature today, that goal has been surpassed, with 11.5% of the planet's surface now classified as "protected."

Furthermore, the study finds that 80% of all endangered and threatened species on the planet Earth have ranges at least partially protected by national parks or nature preserves.

Good news, right?

Wrong.

Hundreds of imperiled species around the world - from a tiny opossum to a radiant blue bird - lack protection from human encroachment despite the vast amount of land set aside for conservation, a new study warns.

In fact, 88% of the animal species included in the survey were found to have some portion of their range protected, though the study restricted itself to areas larger than 1,000 hectares, or 3.86 square miles.

For many individual animals, especially reptiles and amphibians, 3.86 square miles is a range hundreds of times larger than what they would actually use. In the case of the Eastern Hellbender, an endangered species of North American Salamander, 999 hectares could theoretically support over 34,000 individuals. Two or three parks that size would guarantee the species' survival indefinitely, yet this study would have ignored them, as it does most of the areas owned by one of the most successful environmental groups on the planet, The Nature Conservancy.

The group has been purchasing critical habitat for years, yet thanks to the artificially imposed 1000 hectare limit, Nature Conservancy-owned areas like Elk Knob, Kyles Ford and the Lennox Woods were not included in the study. The reason for this is not only because the areas bought by the Nature Conservancy are for the most part less than 1000 hectares in area, but because, as the authors point out, Data on the global distribution of protected areas were obtained from the 2003 World Database on Protected Areas. The World Database on Protected Areas may be the best available source, but it's hardly a complete one.

As just one example, take Florida's Estero Bay State Buffer Preserve, a 9,757 acre preserve listed in the World Database as having a size of.....0 hectares. The same goes for the Allagash wilderness, Bakertown Fen and literally dozens of other areas.

The areas that the authors did manage to include are dismissed as inadequate, despite the surpassing of the 1993 Durban goals.

The largest protected areas are in desert or cold climates where the biodiversity is far lower than in tropical areas teeming with life, said Stuart L. Pimm, a professor of ecology at Duke University.

"The protected areas tend to be in the wrong places. We have huge national parks in Alaska, but few protected areas in biologically rich places like Florida or Hawaii," said Pimm, who was not involved in the study.

If Professor Pimm wasn’t involved in the study, why the hell is he being quoted?

No matter. Perhaps Professor Pimm has never heard of Everglades National Park, or of the two national parks in Hawaii. All three are fairly large, as I recall.

Here's a map of the "gap species" identified by the authors--i.e. those species whose ranges are wholly unprotected according to the definitions of the study. Of the 1,424 gap species identified by the study, Florida and Hawaii contain exactly none. If it wasn't for a couple of spots along the Mexican border the U.S. would be completely blank as far as unprotected ranges are concerned.

So much for Americans being the ostensible destroyers of the planet. The rest of the planet looks pretty blank as well. One would think we're doing a half-decent job of protecting the species that need help, rather than a half-assed one.

Despite the spin imparted to it, the study is almost wholly good news. International goals set ten years ago have been surpassed. When was the last time that happened, if ever? 80% of all endangered and threatened animal species are now accorded some form of protection.

The spin associated with the publication of this study should have been "We're doing great!. Let's finish the job!" Instead, it's "The sky is falling." There is such a thing as good environmental news. It's just never packaged that way.

*Whoops. Make that the Caracas Congress. The Fifth World Parks Congress was where the announcement that the goal had been surpassed was made.

Posted by Bigwig at April 8, 2004 02:56 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
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