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Value of preservation

28th Dec 2017

Humans no longer coexist with their environments; it is increasingly apparent that we feel forced to fight against nature in an attempt to climb the ladder of social mobility, whether for aspirations of grandeur or simply the middle-class ideal – a house, car or two, the latest smartphone, etc. The acquisition of this ideal takes space and energy. Space meaning land, and energy, generally meaning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil.

Humans have sought out every nook and cranny of usable land to exploit in one way or another, to build houses, run businesses, or mine for resources. Only 15% of the world’s land is protected and 3% of its oceans.

There are a plethora reasons to protect natural areas, including historical and cultural sites significant to indigenous populations; and ecosystem services like water purification, pollination, medicine, erosion and flood control, climate regulation, and carbon storage. Some studies have quantified ecosystem services, and they run into the trillions of dollars per year. Can you imagine pollinating crops by hand?

The case against preserving land usually has to do with the possibility of finding rich mineral deposits underneath untapped areas, potentially bringing down energy costs. Conservative US lawmakers argue that protecting so much land is keeping the country from achieving ‘energy independence,’ while many environmentalists claim that politicians have simply been corrupted by powerful special interests wanting to make millions for their shareholders at the expense of the long-term health of the ecosystem.

Others against outright protection say that it simply is not enough, citing instances where target species have not successfully rebounded from the preservation of their habitat, due to a variety of reasons, including mismanagement, government investment and oversight, human pressures, etc.

In a controversial move, President Trump recently announced that he would decertify the Bears Ears Monument and Grand Staircase from protected status. These areas comprise about 2 million acres of picturesque land in Utah that President Obama signed to protect just before he left office.

The law that both the presidents used, the Antiquities Act of 1906, has historically been used by presidents to protect federal land, though it was used in a handful of cases to remove land from protection. In the case of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, Native Americans are challenging the decision in court, suing the administration, as they deem the areas culturally important; hikers regularly report finding artefacts there. The litigation will finally determine whether decertification of protected land is lawful under the act.

The decision to open up these areas for resource exploitation comes just two months after the Senate voted to allow oil drilling in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in a major blow to environmentalists.

A study conducted by Headwater Economics, published this year, revealed that preserved areas tend to be better for economic growth and per capita income versus unprotected land. There are 1.9 million direct jobs in outdoor recreation, and federal lands recreation is responsible for over $51 billion in visitor expenditures in the US. The study was conducted mainly in western states of the US, including Utah, and exposed a variety of social and economic benefits stemming from protected lands.

Overall, ecosystem services far outweigh the short-term economic gains had from developing on protected lands. A study published in April 2016 in the journal Nature, and summarized by the Guardian, showed that biodiversity is, in fact, greater in protected areas. After sampling close to 2,000 protected sites, and over 4,500 unprotected areas, the study concluded that “there are 15% more individual plants and animals and 11% more species inside than outside protected areas, according to the largest analysis of biodiversity in terrestrial globally protected areas to date.”

The research is in; protecting land does have long-term benefit and costs less than mitigating the effects of unnecessary accidents that could ruin the landscape indefinitely. If the past year, full of wildfires and hurricanes was not a wake-up call to fragility, look at your children, and imagine them not having quiet, natural space to get away and think.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environment Science & Policy

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