Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa  (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

Habitat fragmentation disrupts forest carbon cycles

We all know that fragmenting forests is bad for biodiversity.  But it's also bad for the planet -- because it screws up carbon cycles, makes forests more likely to burn, and promotes global warming. 

Fires... not natural in rainforests  (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Fires... not natural in rainforests (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Prior studies, including those led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, have shown that fragmented forests in the Amazon lose a lot of their carbon.  This is evidently because the hot, dry conditions near forest edges kill many trees.  Additional trees are snapped or toppled by wind gusts near edges.

This is bad news because the carbon stored in the trees eventually decomposes and ends up as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. 

Laurance and colleagues estimated that the fragmentation of tropical forests creates up to 150 million tons of atmospheric carbon emissions per year -- equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Great Britain.  And this 'fragmentation effect' is on top of the massive carbon emissions that result from forest destruction.

And now a new study shows that habitat fragmentation also slows down the rate of organic decomposition.  This occurs because the warm, dry conditions near forest edges inhibit wood-eating fungi, which are important decomposers.  In the new study, the rate of decomposition near forest edges was about half that in forest interiors.

This means that dead trees, limbs, leaves, and other woody material will accumulate near edges.  Why is this important?  What happens if you take a lot of fine woody material and dry it out? 

It becomes very, very easy to burn.

In the Amazon, fragmented forests are hugely vulnerable to fires.  Not only does forest fragmentation create a lot of dry, flammable material near forest edges, but cattle ranchers like to burn the pastures surrounding the fragments -- to control weeds and produce a flush of new grass for their cattle.  Many of these fires burn the forests as well.

The results can be devastating.  Satellite images show that fragmented forests in drier parts of the Amazon virtually 'implode' in the first few years after fragmentation -- the result of a withering recurrence of destructive, edge-related fires. 

The bottom line: One of the best things we can do for forests is not to fragment them. 

This isn't just about conserving a few pretty birds or butterflies.  By reducing forest fires and rampant carbon emissions, it's about keeping our planet more livable for all of us.