America’s Best Idea, Executed Poorly

A study says that if we want to prevent extinction, we’re protecting the wrong areas of the country. Can't we do both?

Credit: Photo: Erin/Flickr

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says the national parks program is America’s best idea. A new study, however, says it could be better. Our land protection strategy is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing to protect endangered species. The country's most vulnerable creatures—those with small ranges or those found only in the continental United States—live mostly in the Southeast. Our protected lands, especially the jewels of the national parks system, are concentrated in the West. Doh!

The map below, generated by study author Clinton Jenkins of the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas in Brazil, shows which U.S. lands have some form of legal conservation status. The different colors represent the degree of protection, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Dark-green areas have the strictest limits on development, where the land is managed for the exclusive benefit of wildlife. At the other end of the spectrum are the red areas, like the Adirondacks, where conservation is just one goal in a more flexible system of land management. The white parts—the overwhelming majority—have no legal protections. That’s where you and I live, work, and drive our noisy, polluting cars. The takeaway here is that our conservation plan is very West-centric.

Credit: Photo: PNAS

Now look at these maps, which depict the geographic distribution of animals designated as vulnerable by IUCN, with red representing areas with the most species in some danger of extinction. (By the way, browsing the IUCN Red List database of threatened and endangered species is an edifying way to waste a few hours.) The first map is dedicated to mammals, the second to birds, and the third to amphibians.

The mismatch should be obvious—our most vulnerable species are not living in protected areas.

If you’re a skeptic, you’re probably wondering if we’re confusing cause and effect: Perhaps the vast open spaces of the West have so few threatened species because of the protections. Good thought! Unfortunately, it’s wrong, and I have more maps below to prove it.

The focus of much conservation activity is on protecting endemic species, which live only in one area. If those species lose their habitat, they have nowhere else to go. These maps show the concentration of endemic species in the United States. The left column represents mammals, birds, and amphibians, in descending order. The right column depicts reptiles, freshwater fish, and trees.

There are some endemic species in and around our western protected areas, but the real hot spots are clearly in northern Florida, Georgia, and the Appalachians. If the West were a paradise for animal and plant life, and the unprotected East a barren wasteland, these maps would look very different.

The mismatch between our conservation strategy and the needs of threatened species is a combination of historical quirks and economic priorities. John Muir, arguably our most famous naturalist and one of the driving forces behind U.S. land conservation strategy, was more interested in saving landscapes than species. Reflecting on his time in Yosemite with Muir, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1913, “John Muir cared little for birds or bird songs, and knew little about them. The hermit-thrushes meant nothing to him, the trees and the flowers and the cliffs everything.”

Don’t judge Muir too harshly. Extinction wasn’t a concept that humans fully understood until the late 18th century, so species protection wasn’t a top priority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once we finally started worrying about extinction, the focus was on a small number of prominent creatures.

“Early wildlife conservationists—men like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell—were primarily hunters and anglers,” says Matt Skoglund, director of NRDC’s Northern Rockies office as well as a passionate hunter and angler himself (disclosure). “They were worried about species like bison, elk, moose, salmon, and ducks. Salamanders and butterflies weren’t getting their attention.”

Tiny, economically insignificant species are precisely the ones we need to worry about now in the Southeast. The bluemask darter, for example, is an endangered fish living in the Caney Fork River system in Tennessee. The Weller’s salamander is another endangered species, living in the high southern Appalachian Mountains.

A Weller's salamander
Credit: Photo: Brian Gratwicke

Economics and simple timing has also dictated much of the U.S. land-protection strategy. By the time government officials began to think about setting aside wilderness, much of the eastern United States had already been converted into farmland and cities. The federal government owned huge, agriculturally unproductive tracts in the West, which made it a convenient starting place for conservation.

There’s still plenty we can do to save the country’s creatures, though, without declaring the entire southeastern United States a national park. For instance, we can protect areas from development and sensitive waterways from overuse and pollution. Jenkins and his coauthors suggest a few good places to start: the Blue Ridge Mountains; the Sierra Nevada; the California coast; the watersheds of Tennessee, Alabama, and northern Georgia; the Florida Panhandle; and a few others. None of this is to say, of course, that we should abandon our great western parks, which host diverse ecosystems also worthy of our concern.

“Species like grizzly bears and wolverines need a big, connected landscape, which is why it’s important to protect open spaces in the West,” says Skoglund. “It shouldn’t be an either-or. We should protect both.” (And all that lies in between, too.)

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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