No question about it: Parks and protected areas are the absolulte cornerstone of our efforts to protect nature. In the long term, we can’t save wildlife and ecosystems without them.
But people want to use parks too — and in rapidly growing numbers. For recreational activities ranging from hiking and birdwatching and camping to noiser affairs such as mountain-biking, snowmobiles, and four-wheel-driving.
Where do we draw the line?
There’s no question that roads in parks can be a double-edge sword.
We need some roads so tourists can access parks, but we have to be super-careful where and how we build them.
For instance, in regions where law enforcement is weak, roads can rip apart a forest — sharply increasing illegal activities such as poaching, logging, and mining.
For example, it’s been estimated that new roads – often driven by foreign mining or timber investors from nations such as China – could chop in half or damage up to a third of all the national parks in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Nouabale Ndoke Park in Congo, poaching wasn’t a big problem until a new road was built along the edge of the park.
Suddenly the fatal rak-rak-rak of AK-47 rifles – often aimed at elephants by ivory poachers – was being heard all too often.
And what about a simple bike trail or a walking track? They let in people too. Are trails and tracks harmless?
TRAILS ON TRIAL
Not always. For instance, it’s known that mountain biking causes a range of impacts.
Their tires chew up the soil and cause compaction and erosion — a significant problem in the fragile alpine vegetation in mountainous areas where many bikers like to explore.
And by moving rapidly, bikers can scare wildlife.
In North America and Europe, many wild species, such as bears, wolves, caribou, and bobcats, have been shown to flee or avoid areas where human hikers or bike traffic occur with regularity.
In Indonesia, even trails used by quiet eco-tourists and birdwatchers scared away some sensitive wildlife species or caused them to shift to being active only at night.
It turns out that each type of human activity – be it hiking or biking or horse riding — has its own signature impact on nature.
And overall, we simply don’t know the net effect of human recreation on parks and protected areas globally.
However, a study earlier this year found that roughly one-third of all terrestrial protected areas worldwide – a staggering 6 million square kilometers, an area bigger than Kenya – is already under intense human pressure.
Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships, and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places.
KEEP PEOPLE OUT?
Is the answer to stop people from visiting parks?
Not really. Visitors in many parts of the world help to fund the operation of national parks and represent a vital form of income for local people.
Exposure to nature is also one of the best ways to build support for environmental protection, generating political momentum for the establishment of protected areas.
And locking people out of land is a very unpopular thing to do. Governments that block people from accessing nature reserves often face an electoral backlash.
HOW TO MANAGE HUMANITY?
If we accept that people must be able to use parks, what’s the best way to limit their impacts on ecosystems and wildlife?
One way is to encourage them to stay on designated trails and tourist routes.
A recent study (using geotagged data from photos) showed that half of all the photos taken by park visitors occurred in less than 1 percent each park.
In other words, most visitors use only a small part of each park. That’s good news for nature.
If people tend to limit their activities to the vicinity of pretty waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and designated hiking areas, that leaves much of the park available for disturbance-sensitive animals and ecosystems.
So, there’s room for practical science and management here.
We want to design protected areas in a way that lets people enjoy them – but focusing their activies in particular areas — while retaining large and intact core areas of the park where wildlife can roam free with little human disturbance.
And while we’re designing our parks, we want to use every opportunity – every visit – as a way to educate and empower visitors.
We need people using parks to understand, appreciate, and stand up for nature.