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Once a world leader in creating public lands, U.S. now leads in shrinking them

The driver is industrial use, like mining and logging, and the pace of lifting protections is accelerating.

Bears Ears National Monument
In 2017, President Donald Trump reduced the area of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent.
REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

“Degazettement” is rather an opaque and unlovely word, but maybe worth knowing if you care about the future of public lands, for it helps describe an unhappy trend to reduce their extent, protection status and ecological value.

In a sense, “degazetting” a protected landscape is akin to “delisting” a protected species — an action that removes it from a roster of special conservation concern. Where delisting is generally justified by species recovery, however, degazetted lands are typically relieved of their protective boundaries for the benefit of private exploiters — like mining and logging companies — with government influence.

Such erasures are proliferating, and accelerating, both in the United States and around the world, according to new findings published in the journal Science.

In what is claimed to be “the most comprehensive global review to date of the extent, trends and proximate causes” of these rollbacks, researchers led by Rachel E. Golden Kroner of Conservation International looked at a suite of actions known as PADDD, for “protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement.”

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The findings that have attracted the most attention, so far, are those concerning rollbacks by the Trump administration (Rolling Stone: “U.S. Sees Largest Reduction of Protected Lands in History Under Trump.”) But without minimizing the badness of degazetting 85 percent of the Bears Ears National Monument and 51 percent of Grand Staircase-Escalante (a personal favorite), I suggest these disgraces are entirely typical of the Kroner paper’s documented portrait of PADDD rollbacks going all the way back to 1892.

That’s the date of the first documented PADDD action in the United States, which eased restrictions in the 2-year-old Yosemite National Park to allow roadbuilding; a couple of decades later, Congress degazetted about one-third of Yosemite to enable mining and logging.

More recently, of the 269 rollbacks on U.S. public lands that the researchers found in records from 1892 to 2017 — affecting a half-million square kilometers across 229 protected areas in 44 states — 90 percent have been enacted in this millennium.

U.S. leads in un-protecting, too

That surpasses a global figure of 78 percent for the same period, which I guess means the nation that once led the world in protecting public lands has also come to set the pace for un-protecting them.

And now a pause for technical clarification:

  • By “global” the Kroner paper means the 76 countries for which sufficient data could be found (always a problem when the object is ownership, use and regulation of land). The United States got special attention because of its historic leadership in land protection, as did Brazil, long but perhaps no longer the driving force for rainforest protection in the Amazon basin. Eight other nations of “Amazonia” were studied for their partnership with Brazil in that effort; 66 widely scattered countries with sufficient records rounded out the list.
  • The analysis notes that governments have designated nearly 15 percent of the earth’s land surface for protection — and 7.3 percent of the oceans — but makes no attempt to calculate how these aggregate totals have been affected by PADDD actions or, for that matter, the addition of new acreage to protected areas.
  • Because of the large number of countries for which no data are available, as well as recordkeeping inconsistencies in the 76 nations that were considered worth sampling, the aggregated figures are likely to be conservative both for protections and rollbacks.
  • Although industrial, extractive development appears to be the main engine for PADDD rollbacks, both historically and today, the paper also counts a 2016 decision by the National Park Service to allow Indian tribes to harvest plants “for traditional subsistence purposes if the activity will have ‘no significant ecological impact.’ “

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Major ecological losses

Plenty of other PADDDs have resulted in heavy impacts. There was the downsizing of Joshua Tree National Monument in 1950 for mining, and the downgrading of eight (unnamed) national forests for construction of ski infrastructure in 1986. Two closer-to-home historical examples highlighted by Kurt Repanshek for National Parks Traveler:

Mackinac National Park in Michigan officially was the second national park designated in the United States, in 1875, under the oversight of the War Department. But 20 years later it lost that designation when the War Department proposed to abandon Fort Mackinac on the island. Since that move would leave the national park without a custodian, Michigan’s governor at the time petitioned the federal government to turn the Mackinac National Park over to the state to be operated as a state park, which it did.

Also gone from the park system is Fossil Cycad National Monument. The monument, located in South Dakota, was created to protect and preserve an entire fossil forest of cycads, a type of tropical plant that resembles a fern or palm. While President Harding signed the necessary paperwork in 1922 to create the monument, illegal collectors had stripped away the hundreds of fossil cycads on the surface that had made the site worthy of national park status. By 1956, Congress agreed with the National Park Service to decommission the monument and turn the lands over to the BLM.

Of more modern times, the Kroner paper observes:

From 1944 to 2017, the U.S. government proposed at least 737 PADDD events in 426 PAs, which, if enacted, would affect 402,414 km2 of protected lands. The government introduced 90% of U.S. PADDD proposals since 2000, 99% of which were associated with industrial-scale development. For instance, proposals in 2011 and 2015 to authorize infrastructure construction for national security purposes on public lands “within 100 miles” (161 km) of Mexico or Canada would affect 191 PAs.

Recent PADDD events highlight the increasingly uncertain future of U.S. PAs. In 2017, after 114 unsuccessful proposals over 30 years, the U.S. Congress approved oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Also in 2017, President Trump enacted the two largest downsizes in U.S. history, reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by 85% (4657 km2) and 51% (3488 km2), respectively; these decisions are currently under litigation.

The U.S. government has identified nine additional terrestrial and marine national monuments for downgrading or downsizing.

Of course, these accelerating trends to roll back land protections are occurring just as the world’s extinction-minded ecologists suggest we need to dramatically expand global efforts in habitat conservation to head off catastrophic species losses.

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This is especially critical in regions of the highest diversity — Amazonia, say. But the PADDD picture there is discouraging, too:

To conserve biocultural diversity and ecosystem services, the nine countries of Amazonia established PAs covering nearly 25% of their lands.

Governments in seven Amazonian countries enacted 440 PADDD events (322 downgrades, 86 downsizes, and 32 degazettements) across 245 (12%) of state-designated PAs between 1961 and 2017. These PADDD events removed protections for 154,857 km2  and downgraded an additional 209,004 km2. Most (83%) enacted PADDD events were associated with industrial-scale resource extraction and development, followed by local land pressures and claims (9%).

Of the enacted PADDD events in Amazonia, 5% were simultaneously offset with upgraded or expanded protections, whereas 67% were later reversed through revocations of downgrades or establishments of new PAs. PADDD in Amazonia is widespread, with 75% of ecoregions and 21% of Key Biodiversity Areas currently or potentially affected.

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The paper, “The uncertain future of protected lands and waters,” can be found here but access is not free.