(CN) – Once the global leaders in land conservation, the United States and Brazil are now scaling back legal protections for national parks and other lands at an alarming pace – compromising efforts to conserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change, a new study suggests.
Laws restricting human activity like oil drilling and farming on over 1.2 million miles of protected land worldwide have been relaxed or eliminated since 1892, according to the study published Thursday in Science.
Known as “protected-area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement,” or PADDD, these legal processes change or remove protected status from conservation areas and shrink their borders.
The United States, Brazil and eight neighboring countries in South America’s Amazonia region accounted for a disproportionate share of PADDDs between 1892 and 2018, the study found. During that timeframe, 73 countries proposed or scaled back conservation laws 3,749 times. But the United States and Amazonia accounted for 269 and 440 PADDDs, respectively.
While they once led the world in conservation, the United States and Brazil could encourage other countries to also scale back conservation protections, researchers said.
“Our work shows that setting aside a protected area is not the end of the story, but just the beginning,” Rachel Golden Kroner, the study’s lead author and a conservation social scientist at Conservation International in Washington, said by email.
With the United States and Amazonia experiencing rapid environmental policy change, Kroner and her colleagues documented proposed and completed PADDDs in these two regions, along with PADDDs in 66 additional countries.
The data show conservation rollbacks accelerated globally in the 21st century. In Brazil, 48% of rollbacks were proposed between 2010 and 2017, mostly for hydropower dams. In the United States, 90% of rollbacks were enacted since 2000. These include the Trump administration’s proposed reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by 85% and 51%, respectively, and Congress’s 2017 decision to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Globally, 78% of rollbacks were enacted since 2000, mostly to authorize industrial-scale natural resource extraction and development, according to researchers.
These projects “are often incompatible with conservation objectives,” Kroner said.
Kroner and her co-authors suggest developing policies to encourage preserving existing protected lands. These policies include monitoring public reporting of proposed and completed PADDDs and implementing policies for PADDDs similar to those required for establishing conservation areas, such as environmental impact studies and mitigation strategies.
“Protected areas are one of the most important tools in the conservation toolbox – with vast potential to conserve biodiversity, mitigate climate change, and provide other benefits for people and nature,” Kroner said. “It is important to continue to monitor protected areas to ensure that they deliver on their promise as a biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation strategy.”
Within days of taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump ordered then-Interior chief Ryan Zinke to come up with a list of national monuments to downsize or eliminate altogether – a list that initially included Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and 25 other places set aside for protection by previous administrations.
In the end, Zinke recommended that Trump not eliminate any monuments and instead called for shrinking “a handful” of the 27 he evaluated. He also took a few others off the chopping block.