New study: protected areas conserve mangroves and avoid blue carbon emissions

Kate Fuller (Marine Photobank)

Mangroves are an important storehouse of carbon. Source: Kate Fuller (Marine Photobank)

What’s a good strategy to combat climate change and save species simultaneously? One possible approach is to focus on protecting lands that store lots of carbon and that also provide excellent habitat. A flagship example of this type of ecosystem is the mighty mangrove. Mangroves provide an incredible wealth of ecosystem services: they serve as habitat for species, and even protect coastal areas from storms. Mangrove root structures offer unique underwater habitat, safeguarding breeding grounds for fish that local people depend on. Furthermore, these coastal ecosystems store a vast wealth of carbon. The carbon that is stored in mangroves (and other coastal and marine areas) is known as blue carbon. The carbon isn’t actually blue, of course. The term blue carbon is used to distinguish the carbon stored in coastal ecosystems from that stored in terrestrial ones. Blue carbon is found worldwide and is perhaps an underappreciated part of a solution to combat global climate change.

Global distribution of blue carbon.

Using policies, how can we harness the power of mangroves to store carbon and deliver climate mitigation benefits (not to mention climate adaptation benefits such as buffering from storms)? One approach is to set aside mangroves as protected areas. By drawing boundaries around mangrove habitats and preventing coastal development, perhaps we can realize some additional benefits in the form of blue carbon storage. This approach is worth investigating: are protected areas actually effective at preserving mangroves that store carbon? The first study to examine this question was published this week in Ecological Economics (Miteva et al. 2015). Miteva and her team used a quasi-experimental approach, incorporating matching and difference-in-differences methods. These approaches take into consideration the non-random locations of protected areas on the landscape. Simply comparing protected to unprotected areas would not yield accurate estimates of the causal effects of protected areas. Using matching (with both covariates and propensity scores in this case) allowed researchers to compare “apples to apples,” comparing villages that were protected with similar villages that were unprotected.

The researchers used covariates, factors correlated both with the treatments and outcomes, to select appropriate control villages. The covariates they chose included: the distance to markets (ports and cities), agricultural suitability proxies (length of rivers, slope, elevation), and socio-economic factors (e.g. poverty). They also examined how both marine protected areas (MPAs) and species management areas (SMAs) fared in terms of effectiveness. After completing a series of different statistical manipulations and robustness checks, Miteva and her team demonstrated unequivocally that overall, protected areas were significantly effective. In particular, MPAs were effective at reducing mangrove loss from both 2000 to 2006 and 2000 to 2010. However, species management areas were less effective – they did not have a significant effect during either time period.

mangrove pa

Overall, the mangroves that were not lost because of the policy intervention of protected areas stored 13 million megatons of carbon emissions. According to the researchers’ estimates, this is equivalent to $544 million (using the social cost of carbon) and equal to taking 344,000 cars off of the road. This study is an excellent contribution to the literature, as it is the only and most current large scale evaluation of protected areas’ impacts on blue carbon. One suggestion to improve future evaluation studies is to include or control for the effects of additional policies, including changes to protected areas and other conservation interventions. At least seven known policies have changed the size or status of protected areas in Indonesia, many of which have affected coastal protected areas (see Although the known number of instances of protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) events is low in this nation, it is possible that there are many other undiscovered instances. It is important for researchers to continue to explore and document these changes and consider them in analyses. If considered carefully, the incorporation of protected area dynamics could offer new insights to the evaluation literature and improve estimates of protected area performance. 

Instances of protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) in Indonesia.

Instances of protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) in Indonesia. Key: green = downsizing,; orange = degazettement; yellow highlight = proposed PADDD.


Miteva, D. A., B. C. Murray, and S. K. Pattanayak. 2015. Do protected areas reduce blue carbon emissions? A quasi-experimental evaluation of mangroves in Indonesia. Ecological Economics 119:127–135.

Impact Evaluation in Conservation Science

This is the first blog in a weekly series exploring impact evaluation and building the evidence base in conservation science and policy.

Impact. It’s a term that we hear everyday in the news without batting an eye. Here are some headlines from just today:

But what does the word impact actually mean? How can we really measure the impact of one thing (let’s say, a low fat diet) on another (weight loss)? Aren’t there many other factors at play that could actually be causing the change? What if, while a subject begins a low fat diet, he also starts exercising more and counting calories? Those factors are likely to be important to the measured outcome (weight loss) as well and have to be “teased out” somehow. How can this be done? Scientifically, we use a technical process called impact evaluation. This process attempts to estimate the actual effect of a treatment or intervention (e.g. a drug) on an important outcome (e.g. weight). This approach is used regularly in the medical research community when testing the effects of drugs on patients. Researchers must carefully design the trial so that the populations taking the drug itself and those taking the placebo represent a random cross-section of people. This helps to ensure that the two groups do not differ significantly in other ways that could affect the outcome. For example, if the treated (drug-taking) group in the trial contains a disproportionate number of individuals that have hypothyroidism (which is associated with low metabolism), this will bias the results. The hypothyroidism-group may be inherently less (or perhaps more!) likely to respond to the effects of the drug. Although the drug could indeed have an effect, it would not be effectively measured by trying it on this non-random sub-sample of the population. Through random assignment of participants to the treatment and control groups, researchers ensure that the groups are not inherently different from each other. This way, the groups are fairly comparable to each other and researchers can compare apples to apples.

How a randomized control trial works

How a randomized control trial works. From

The randomized control trial is considered the gold-standard in scientific research. Because of the randomization, the evidence these studies produce provide solid estimates of the impact of treatments (e.g. drugs) on relevant outcomes (e.g. weight loss). However, in conservation and policy evaluation, it is nearly impossible to design a randomized experiment. For instance, would it be possible to test the effects of a Payments for Ecosystem Services plan using a randomized control trial with control and treatment (e.g. paid) groups? This would be a highly inequitable public policy, as the benefits of the payment would only benefit certain people. What about the evaluation of a protected area using randomization? Is it possible to randomly protect some areas and not others and then measure the outcomes? Of course, this approach would politically and practically impossible.

To get around these constraints, conservation scientists have borrowed from econometrics and have implemented approaches known as quasi-experimental methods for impact evaluation. Because we cannot directly experiment with conservation policies, we instead must employ a roundabout approach – hence the “quasi” term. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, conservation scientists attempt to simulate a randomized control trial. These approaches have been applied to evaluate protected areas and community-based conservation projects alike. The main idea is that these approaches attempt to estimate the counterfactual – what would the outcome have been in the absence of the policy?  We cannot directly observe this, so we can use statistical approaches to estimate it. What are some examples of these approaches? I’ll review three here: matching, instrumental variables, and structured equation modeling.

For example, with an approach called matching, treated groups are compared with select control groups that are as similar as possible to the treatment groups. In other words, they are matched up with each other. This matching process is designed to eliminate or reduce selection bias to the extent possible. Selection bias is essentially a converse of randomization: certain localities are more likely to be selected for a policy treatment (such as a protected area). By using matched controls with similar characteristics, the selection bias can be reduced. Imagine a simple matching situation: you want to estimate the impacts of a protected area on forest cover. To select matches, you’ll use covariates – variables that correlate with the treatment assignment of protection and the outcome variable of forest cover. One example of a covariate is distance to roads. (There are many other possible covariates, but we can just explore one in this simple example.) To select the appropriate matched control, simply choose a locality that is unprotected with the closest possible value for the distance to roads.

matching example

In reality, the analysis would include many covariates that would need to match as closely as possible between treated and control groups. Adding more covariates is not only necessary to reduce selection bias, but also may make it more difficult to identify close matches.

A second approach to try is called structured equation modeling (SEM). This method is somewhat similar to matching, as it employs covariates to reduce selection. However, SEM also allows the inclusion of extra components other than the treatment, called mediating factors, that may also contribute to the outcome. Using this method, it is possible to identify mechanisms – exactly how and through what pathways the treatment affected the outcome. In addition, the interactions between mediating variables can be taken into account – this is an advantage of SEM over matching, which leaves out those interactions.


Another approach to consider employs instrumental variables. In this case, you use an instrument – a variable that affects the probability of treatment but does not affect the outcomes except through the treatment. In other words, the instrument is not correlated with unobserved confounding variables. The advantage here is that it reduces selection bias and only focuses on locations where the treatment variable is not “contaminated” with unobserved confounders. However, it’s difficult to identify instruments in practice that actually work. One example of an instrumental variable that has been used in protected area evaluation is the distance to rivers. The idea here is that protected areas tend to be located near rivers; however, the distance to rivers is unlikely to correlate with an outcome variable such as forest loss or change.

instrumental variables

These are just three examples of evaluation approaches that can be used in conservation science. The appropriate methodological approach for your research will depend on important factors, especially the availability of data and scale of analysis.

For more information about impact evaluation in conservation science, check out these useful references:

Baylis, K., Honey-Rosés, J., Börner, J., Corbera, E., Ezzine-de-Blas, D., Ferraro, P. J., Lapeyre, R., Persson, U. M., Pfaff, A. and Wunder, S. (2015), Mainstreaming Impact Evaluation in Nature Conservation. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12180

Ferraro, P. J. (2009), Counterfactual thinking and impact evaluation in environmental policy. New Directions for Evaluation, 2009: 75–84. doi: 10.1002/ev.297

PADDDtracker – explore legal changes to the world’s protected areas

This is the tenth (and final) blog in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).

When you think about national parks, wildlife reserves, marine sanctuaries, or other protected lands or waters, what pops into your mind? Perhaps you envision amazing animals, peaceful getaways, or the potential for fun adventures. Chances are that you live nearby a protected area, whether it be local, state, or nationally designated. In fact, there are more than 200,000 nationally established protected areas in the world according to the latest estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. You can locate your local protected areas here. Protected lands and waters provide endless resources to people, including carbon storage, filtration of clean water, natural products, and a sense of peace and serenity in nature. Maps that display protected places are usually viewed as a snapshot. However, have you ever thought about the dynamic nature of protected areas? It turns out that although the number of protected areas and the land and waters they cover has been increasing in recent years, there are many instances around the world of changes that have reduced the size or status of protected areas or even removed protection completely.

Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) is an acronym to encapsulate the legal changes that make protected areas weaker, smaller, or delete them entirely. Researchers have worked to collect data on PADDD and have made it available online at This site, although intuitive to use, has a few important technical components that users should be familiar with when exploring or using the data. This blog post presents a quick “primer” and answers to FAQs about PADDDtracker. The intended audiences of PADDDtracker include scientists, park managers and other conservation practitioners, students, and companies considering investments in conservation or other development projects.

First of all, what is a protected area?

For the purposes of defining a PADDD event for PADDDtracker, a protected area is:

“a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” (IUCN Definition 2008)

While doing research on PADDD, it’s important to identify whether a legal change is actually affecting a protected area as defined by IUCN and not some other type of intervention (a payment for ecosystem services scheme, a forest certification area, etc).

What do all of those D’s stand for? A dega-what? 

A downgrade is the legal allowance of additional human activities within a protected area. These could include industrial development and extraction (e.g. oil drilling, agriculture, mining, tourism), or could even include subsistence-level harvesting of natural resources (artesanal fishing).

A downsize is the reduction in size of a protected area caused by a change in the law.

A degazette is the complete legal deletion of a protected area. To “gazette” is to write down or establish an area, so to degazette is to remove it from the law.

The colors on the map show the different D's: downgrades (purple), downsizes (green), and degazettes (orange). Most PADDD event data exist as points, but there are also polygons available in some nations including Peru. 

The colors on the map show the different D’s: downgrades (purple), downsizes (green), and degazettes (orange). Most PADDD event data exist as points, but there are also polygons available in some nations including Peru.

Why are some circles highlighted?  

PADDDtracker differentiates between enacted (already passed into law) and proposed (put forth but not yet passed) PADDD events. Highlighted circles show proposed events. When doing research on PADDD, it’s important to verify the current status of proposals – some may have been enacted recently or may no longer be under consideration.

What are those other terms on the Advanced Search?

Cause: Many PADDD events (but not all) have a known proximate cause that primarily drove the legal change. The cause of legal changes can usually be identified within the law itself. If the cause of a PADDD event does not fall into one of the fourteen causes in the list (e.g. tourism development), it falls under “Other” or is perhaps “Unknown.”

IUCN category: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature provides guidance on the categorization of protected areas into 6 categories. Category I is the strictest, while VI is the least strict. Sometimes, a downgrade causes the change in the IUCN category of a protected area; however, this does not always occur.

The six management categories for protected areas as defined by IUCN.

The six management categories for protected areas as defined by IUCN.

Reverse: Sometimes, PADDD events are withdrawn, even after enactment. For example, there is currently a proposed law in Congress that would reverse the 1906 downsize of Yosemite National Park and add that portion back to the park. Hence, enacted events can be reversed, even years later. In addition, proposed events can also be reversed. In other words, proposals that are retracted or abandoned are considered as reversed PADDD proposals.

Offset: Occasionally, to compensate for the reduction or deletion of a protected area, a law subsequently adds a parcel of land to the park in a different location. Offsets may make up the difference in the area lost but also may not.

Systemic: Oftentimes, one law to change protected areas affects many parks simultaneously. For example, a law may affect all National Parks or all National Forests at the same time.

How can I get summary information on PADDD quickly and easily?

There are two easy ways to do this. The first: access an Event Profile for any PADDD event by clicking on the corresponding dot on the map and selecting Event Profile. This will give you a summary of the information about that particular legal change. Scroll down to access details about the event.

1/2: Event Profile for a downgrade event in Virunga National Park, DRC.

1/2: Event Profile for a downgrade event in Virunga National Park, DRC.

2/2: Details of event profile for downgrade in Virunga National Park, DRC.

2/2: Details of event profile for downgrade in Virunga National Park, DRC.

The second way to get information quickly: access a Country Profile by clicking on a locality on the map outside of a PADDD event dot on the nation you are interested in. Scroll down to access pie charts and a timeline summarizing the data for that country.

1/2: Country profile of PADDD for the DRC.

1/2: Country profile of PADDD for the DRC.

2/2: Country profile of PADDD for the DRC.

2/2: Country profile of PADDD for the DRC.

Where do the data come from?

Some data on PADDDtracker have been published in conjunction with peer-reviewed articles (e.g. Mascia and Pailler 2011; Mascia et al. 2014), but some have not been validated by peer-review. Some data are currently under review or in preparation for publication. A subset of the validated data can be downloaded here. A portion of the data on PADDDtracker, however, have been contributed by “the crowd” including users and contributors from around the world. Hence, there may be duplicate entries of PADDD events and some out of date information, for example, on the current status of proposed events.

How do I share PADDD on Social Media?

Sharing PADDD events and country profiles on social media – facebook and twitter – is easy. When you want to share a page, simply click on the facebook or twitter icon on the top right-hand corner of the screen to share instantly.

How do I conduct research using PADDD data?

Some of the data on PADDD are available to download. These data comprise the data which have been validated by peer review and do not include all PADDD data points that you see online. You can download the data here. Before working with the data, do read the technical guide (here) which defines key terms and provides decision trees about the delineation and definition of PADDD events and fields.

This is exciting. There is so much potential for research on PADDD! Where do I learn even more about PADDD and PADDDtracker!?

More information on PADDD can be found in the technical guide. This document will come in handy if you plan to work with PADDD data for research. For instance, the flow charts help you determine if something is actually a PADDD event and what category “D” it falls into. Also, for the latest science, check out the new peer-reviewed paper about impacts of PADDD on tropical deforestation and carbon emissions (Forrest et al. 2015 – open access).

Start exploring PADDDtracker today!

This is the last entry of the summer blog series. Next week, the fall blog series focused on evaluating conservation interventions and building the evidence base for conservation will begin.

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Nature Needs Half and Looking Beyond Protected Areas

This is the ninth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).

The Yukon to Yellowstone Initiative works to protect lands within a large, transboundary corridor from the Yukon territory to Yellowstone National Park.

The Yukon to Yellowstone Initiative works to protect lands within a large, transboundary corridor from the Yukon territory to Yellowstone National Park.

What will it take to achieve long-term, sustainable conservation? Think big. One visionary initiative answers this question with a catchy phrase: Nature Needs Half. What does this mean exactly? The vision set forth is to protect 50% of the surface of the planet in order for nature (and subsequently, people) to thrive. Given the realities of accelerating population growth, development, consumption, and a lack of political focus on the environment, this may seem like an impractical goal. However, a vision to protect half of the planet is admittedly powerful. This narrative inspires a “think big” approach which could serve to motivate conservationists and all people as we plan for the future. Protecting half of the planet, especially large wilderness areas like boreal forests and the Amazon, would help store carbon, regulate the climatic and hydrological systems, and preserve species, among other benefits.

Before we accept the Nature Needs Half mantra, let’s consider some of the technicalities involved. First of all, how much of the planet is currently protected? According to the most widely used protected area ledger (the World Database of Protected Areas), globally about 15% of the land and 3% of the oceans are protected. There is a long way to go until we cover half of the planet with protected areas. However, especially for terrestrial jurisdictions, we are not far from reaching Aichi Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. This target directs signatory nations to protect 17% of their terrestrial and 10% of their marine areas by 2020. These targets are obviously more short term and achievable than a target of 50% coverage. This begs the question: what is the right target to set? 17%? 25%? What about 100%? Of course, international targets are likely to be driven by political, rather than ecological, considerations. There is no “right” answer here.

Even if the Aichi targets are met – how will it ever be possible for half of the planet to be officially protected? There is one approach that may make this goal more achievable. Let’s expand upon what we mean by “protected.” To date, to be officially classified as a protected area and entered into the World Database of Protected Areas, the location must fit the following definition:

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” (IUCN Definition 2008

However, these officially designated lands and waters are not the only places on the planet that are viable for conservation. In fact, many other management and ownership schemes exist which focus on biodiversity conservation – sometimes solely and sometimes in conjunction with other goals – that are not accounted for in official ledgers. Here are just a few examples of these interventions:

1. Conservation easements are privately protected lands, usually held by a land trust. Similarly to nationally protected areas, conservation easements restrict certain types of land use such as extractive activities or development and preserve the area for its scenic, ecological, and/or cultural values.

National Conservation Easements in the US

National Conservation Easements in the US. NCED stands for National Conservation Easement Database. Source

2. Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) relies on a bottom-up approach. Within CBNRM schemes, local communities organize to make decisions about resource management and also share benefits.

Mobilizing poor fishers, pioneering innovative methods of transferring lease rights to water bodies to fisher groups, and developing communal resource management systems proved to be invaluable – and replicable. Photo from IFAD

Mobilizing poor fishers, pioneering innovative methods of transferring lease rights to water bodies to fisher groups, and developing communal resource management systems proved to be invaluable – and replicable. Photo and caption from IFAD

3. Military training areas may include large swaths of undeveloped, fenced-in land that provide habitat for biodiversity. Military training areas cover as low as 1% but likely up to 6% of the planet and have the potential to deliver great conservation benefits, especially given the large budget of the military itself (Zentelis and Lindenmayer 2014).

Marine Corps Base Camp Pendelton focuses on conservation programs

Marine Corps Base Camp Pendelton focuses on conservation

Beyond these three, there are many other types of conservation schemes that go “outside the box” of traditional protected areas. After first acknowledging the existence of these diverse interventions, an obvious question arises: are these other conservation schemes as effective as the “gold-standard” protected areas? Although we don’t have a comprehensive picture of the performance of all of these interventions yet, we do have some evidence about the success of “non-traditional” protection strategies.

1. In Costa Rica, Payments for Ecosystem Services schemes increased forest cover. Evidence has shown that Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs – programs that pay landowners to refrain from deforesting their land – worked to increase forest cover in Costa Rica (Arriagada et al. 2012). Costa Rica is indeed famous for its conservation ethic, so it is not possible to generalize these results globally for all PES programs. However, this offers some hope about the potential for nontraditional protected approaches to be effective.

2. Indigenous reserves were just as (if not more) effective than protected areas in Brazil. In one study, deforestation and fire occurred about equally frequently in protected areas and indigenous reserves (Nepstad et al. 2006). However, the protected reserves tended to be located in more remote areas, which suggests that deforestation or fire would naturally occur less often in these areas. In contrast, indigenous areas were created “in response to frontier expansion, and many prevented deforestation completely despite high rates of deforestation along their boundaries” (Nepstad et al. 2006). This suggests that Brazilian indigenous reserves provide extremely strong levels of protection, likely due to stringent enforcement.

3. Sacred sites can be important places for conservation. For example, traditional communities that live in the Zambezi valley of Zimbabwe consider the local dry forests to be sacred. Researchers found that the sacred forests experienced far less conversion than other localities. Notably, the research also revealed that forest loss was higher in locations where traditional leaders felt disempowered as compared to areas where leaders retained power (Byers et al. 2001). This is another piece of evidence that the engagement and empowerment of local communities is critical for effective conservation.

Although we have some evidence, much more research should be done to document and evaluate the performance of these diverse conservation interventions to understand the true reach of conservation action. It would be interesting to compare the ecological performance over time of a locality that has undergone dynamic changes to its governance in the form of different conservation interventions. It would also be interesting to compare the socioeconomic enabling conditions and ecological performances of these various interventions – in other words, what works, where, and why? Evidence of the viability of these interventions could help justify their accounting in official protected area ledgers. Eventually, this could even help us achieve the vision of protecting 50% of the planet and giving Nature the half that she needs. 

What has nature conservation done for me lately?

This is the eighth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - the most visited National Park in the US in 2014

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited National Park in the US in 2014

Nature conservation: is it something that we simply like to do, or something that we need? Many may think of nature conservation programs as “nice” or “token” ideas that we could do without. However, many studies have shown that nature provides direct benefits to people everyday. Furthermore, these benefits are enhanced by policies that focus on setting aside protected lands and waters to conserve species. Protected areas may cost the government or locals to establish and maintain, but the benefits that they deliver are likely to be worth the investment. Here are a few examples of the direct benefits provided by nature and protected areas (with some videos).

1. Protected areas provide outlets for tourism, driving the local and global economy

A recent study, the first global analysis of protected area tourism, found that terrestrial protected areas receive over 8 billion visits per year! Using this figure, which is likely an underestimate, researchers discovered that this visitation generates about $600 billion USD annually directly within nations where visitation occurs plus an additional $250 billion USD in consumer surplus. Estimates may be imprecise, but authors acknowledge that they are within the right order of magnitude and in line with previous estimates. This finding is particularly striking, as only about $10 billion is spent on managing and establishing protected areas annually. Given the direct benefits that protected areas provide to society in terms of tourism and associated economic benefits, it stands to reason that much more funding could be allocated toward supporting protected areas. The comparison between what we spend and what we get is almost laughable; protected areas deliver direct (not to mention indirect) financial benefits on the order of 60 to 80 times the investment. However, revenue generated from and spending on protected areas are not evenly distributed globally; most visitation to parks is within the US and UK. Protected areas in these nation already benefit from having extra cash to spend on management. It would be interesting to analyze the intersection between biodiversity distribution and nature-based tourism to determine to what extent the presence of rich biodiversity drives tourism. My suspicion is that higher biodiversity may drive some tourist activities (e.g. Costa Rica), but the most profitable tourism sites will be located in accessible, populated places that provide plenty of amenities.

2. Protected areas provide educational experiences

Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia support tourism and also provide educational programs for local children to help them learn about their history. Check it out:

3. Protected areas may reduce poverty in local areas

Protected areas have been controversial in some places, with some suggesting that they lead to the displacement or disenfranchisement of local communities. While this has indeed occurred in nations including India, the effects of protected areas on poverty are likely to vary by country. One study in Bolivia found that protected areas contributed to poverty alleviation. Individuals living nearby protected lands had lower levels of poverty (as measured by income, education, health, among other variables) than individuals living further away. This study is particularly credible, as it uses a rigorous statistical approach to control for confounding factors and isolate the actual effect of protected areas on livelihoods. The authors caution, however, that the results are not globally generalizable. Future studies should take a national or sub-national approach to investigate protected areas’ impacts on poverty.

4. Protected areas provide direct health benefits

Natural systems, such as forests, provide a buffer for diseases. One new study focused in Brazil found that people living nearby protected areas are healthier. Rates of malaria, acute respiratory infection, and diarrhea were much lower when environmental protection was stricter. The study also modeled some scenarios and found that if environmental protection were expanded or if roads and mines were restricted, health would improve. Furthermore, a very exciting study from Stanford found that after subjects walked in a wooded area (as compared to walking along a highway) they ruminated less – in other words, a quick walk outside in a natural area led to a more relaxed state of mind. Subjects stopped worrying or focusing on negative thoughts. As rumination has been linked with depression, this study suggests that taking a quick walk in your nearest urban park or getting out of the city for a day can have serious positive repercussion for your mental health.

5. Protected areas allow for the enjoyment of nature

Sometimes you just need to get out of urban jungle and get outside into nature. The #NoWalls initiative captures this perfectly!

Overall, nature can provide health, wealth, learning experiences, and just plain fun. How do you enjoy or benefit from protected areas? Comment below

Perspectives on Lion Trophy Hunting

Cecil the Lion.

Cecil the Lion.

The recent outrage over the illegal hunting of Cecil the Lion reminded me of an analysis I compiled in 2013 about African lion tourism. A thorough review of the literature at the time demonstrated that the story of trophy hunting for lions is not straightforward as many make it out to be. Yes, the moral argument is clear – hunting of a majestic, endangered animal is wrong. However, the conservation science and sustainability argument is more complex. The income generated from hunting lions may be significant. Hunting a lion for sport costs a tourist between $24,000 and $71,000 – the highest price for any trophy animal. In theory, much of this funding should be directed to the local communities and habitat conservation which should promote the protection of lions and other creatures. However, this element of the argument becomes murky – there are many unknowns about the particulars of the funding streams from the tourists to the local communities. Corruption and private entities may get in the way and the funds may be funneled into the wrong hands. More in-depth economics research is needed to accurately identify and quantify the funding generated from trophy hunting. I fear, however, that research in this particular area would be met with many obstacles, including opaque, non-transparent bureaucratic barriers and perhaps danger to the researcher. We do know a few important facts and figures, however, about lion tourism to date. The excerpt from this report discusses the “No-Hunting” and the “Southern African” models of wildlife management. The no-hunting model is implemented in India and Kenya; wildlife hunting is banned. In the Southern African model (as examined here in South Africa and Tanzania), however, hunting – including trophy hunting – is allowed. Wildlife tourism, both consumptive (e.g. hunting) and non-consumptive (e.g. photography), contribute to the Southern African economy.

Want to know more about the specifics of lion ecology and tourism? Read on.


African Lion (Panthera leo leo)

The African lion (Panthera leo leo) is an iconic predator whose populations have been declining for the past 50 years due to habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict.  Lions depend on large swaths of habitat and prey including zebras, wildebeest, and springbok. They live in prides of four to six members, which consist of related females and their cubs as well as a dominant male. Females hunt and raise young communally. Typically, lions live in open woodlands or scrub and grass complexes where sufficient cover is provided for hunting and denning.  They are found in most countries in eastern and southern Africa, yet they survive in only 22% of their historical range (IUCN 2006a,b; Bauer 2008).

Current and historic range map of the African lion. Source: Panthera 2009.

Current and historic range map of the African lion. Source: Panthera 2009.

Population Status

African lions live on both protected and private lands, although there are fewer lions outside protected areas than in the past. In 1990, 75% of African lions lived outside protected areas, while in 2002, 50% did (Ferreras and Cousins 1996, Chardonnet 2002). This decline may be attributed to high levels of human-wildlife conflict on unprotected lands.

African lions have been listed on the IUCN Red list  as Vulnerable since 1996.  Recent estimates suggest that the lion population has undergone a 30% to 50% reduction over the past two decades with current estimates ranging from 23,000 to 39,000 (IUCN 2012)

Figure 14: Population trend of the African lion. Sources (in chronological order): Myers 1975 (1950 and 1975); Ferreras and Cousins 1996; Nowell and Jackson; Chardonnet 2002; Bauer and VanderMerwe 2004; IUCN 2012; Riggio et al. 2012.

Population trend of the African lion. Sources (in chronological order): Myers 1975 (1950 and 1975); Ferreras and Cousins 1996; Nowell and Jackson; Chardonnet 2002; Bauer and VanderMerwe 2004; IUCN 2012; Riggio et al. 2012.

The African lion is listed on CITES II, which allows international trade with an export permit.  In 2004, a proposal to transfer the lion from CITES II to CITES I (and restrict all international trade) was denied. This meeting drew national attention to the lion population decline and prompted IUCN to organize regional workshops in Africa to assess the status of lion conservation.

Trophy hunting


Walter Palmer and associate with Cecil.

Trophy hunting is permitted in South Africa and Tanzania, but not in Kenya.  Hunting quotas are established by wildlife departments, typically based on rough population estimates (Baker 1997). Trophy hunting of lions generates significant income for local communities, which is attributed to its high market value. Lions attract the highest prices of all trophy species, on average $24,000 – $71,000 (Lindsey et al. 2012). Lions contribute 5-17% to trophy hunting incomes in each country. Trophy hunting tourists contribute additional revenue including fees to hunt other animals, lodging, and transportation.

Lion trophy hunting was recently banned in Botswana; studies have shown that this ban cost the trophy hunting industry 10% of total revenues (US$1.26 million) and has adversely affected community conservation efforts (Lindsey Roulet 2006, Peake, 2004b). A ban on trophy hunting may confer additional costs or losses of revenue to other tourism providers, such as the hotel and wildlife watching industries.

However, trophy hunting may impact population dynamics of lions. Loveridge et al. found that trophy hunters typically target males and therefore skew sex ratios in favor of adult females. As males are removed from the population, males from outside the pride replace them and may commit infanticide (2007).  Interestingly, in certain countries such as South Africa, up to 90% of lions hunted for sport are captive bred (Damm 2005). Lindsey et al. also suggest that the captive-bred hunting industry in South Africa has grown while the number of wild lions hunted has declined (2012).

Local Perceptions and Threats

Lion-livestock conflict a reality for local farmers.

Lion-livestock conflict a reality for local farmers.

In general, local people perceive lions as a threat to their livelihoods and income-generating opportunities. Lions may prey on livestock, attack people, or otherwise reduce available land for human settlement (Abe et al. 2003).  Lion conservation efforts have not historically involved local communities until recently.  A 2006 IUCN workshop found that local communities support lion conservation actions given that they are given a stake in management.

Threats to lions include poisoning, trapping, and shooters by farmers and herders, habitat loss and fragmentation, scarcity of wild prey, and inbreeding/small populations, improperly managed trophy hunting (Bauer 2008, Trinkel et al 2010). Although habitat fragmentation is listed as a threat, a recent study suggests that lions residing within fenced reserves maintain populations closer to carrying capacity and require $500/Km2 annually for management, while lions in unfenced reserves maintain much lower densities and over $2000/km2 for management (Packer et al. 2013). This suggests that physical separation of lions from human settlements via fences mitigates conflict, reduces management costs and may prevent further declines.

Root causes of these threats include human population growth, expanding settlement, poverty, and armed conflict which prevents tourism and enables wildlife poaching and illegal trade. Illegal hunting and trade is another issue for African lions. Although comprehensive data sets do not exist, illegal trade in cubs, skins, and body parts is common. Wares are exported to Asia, typically for use in traditional medicine and souvenirs. Illegal hunting and trade persist due to ineffective law enforcement  and lack of motivation (IUCN 2006).

Proposed Listing of the Lion on the ESA

In 2011, a group of conservation organizations (IFAW, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Born Free and Defenders of Wildlife) submitted a proposal to list the African lion on the Endangered Species Act.  If passed, import of trophy lions into the US would be banned (except for imports that enhance the species’ propagation or scientific purposes).  The proposal claims that trophy hunting is unsustainable and contributing to severe declines of the lion populations (Place et al. 2011).  The proposal also states that existing regulatory mechanisms such as CITES are inadequate to conserve the species, and that a US listing would attract international attention for the species.  Lindsey et al. 2012 suggest that the reduction of hunting by American tourists would be detrimental to communities that rely on trophy hunting funds to control lion populations and combat poaching. Additional studies have offered alternative actions which may make trophy hunting more sustainable including reducing quotas, improving oversight to prevent illegal activities and setting restrictions to allow for shooting of only the oldest male lions (Loveridge and Macdonald 2002, Whitman et al. 2004, Packer et al. 2011).  As of April 2013, this proposed listing has undergone a public comment period and is under a 12 month review by the USFWS.

African lion conservation: A comparison between models

This case study can be used to compare the effectiveness of the South African (for Tanzania) and No-Hunting (for Kenya) models in terms of their ability to support populations of African lions that generate revenues for local communities.  The lion range in Tanzania covers 92% of the country, 45% of which is located inside protected areas (Mesochina et al. 2010). Tanzania has the largest lion population in Africa (estimated at 16,800 individuals) and is first in terms of lion trophy hunting; about 200 lions are legally harvested each year. This figure does not include illegal harvests (Mesochina et al 2010).  Due to the lack of robust data, it is unknown whether lion populations in Tanzania are declining, stable, or increasing.

The director of wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism recently published an op-ed the New York Times speaking out against the proposed ESA listing (Songorwa 2013). Songorwa wrote that lion hunters pay $9,800 to hunt lions; an average of $1,960,000 (60% of the trophy hunting market) is generated each year (Songorwa 2013).  Listing the species on the ESA and concurrent loss of this revenue would be detrimental to conservation efforts and game reserves in Tanzania.

By contrast, habitat available for lions in Kenya covers less than half of the country  (KWS 2008).  Kenya has been losing 100 lions per year for the past seven years, leaving the country with just 2000 individuals (Barley 2009). At this rate, lions will go extinct in Kenya within 20 years. Lion populations are crashing due to habitat destruction and conflicts with humans. Many rural Kenyan communities are killing lions by poisoning animal carcasses with a pesticide, Carbofuran, which can be purchased over the counter (Mynott 2008).

Furthermore, hunting is prohibited in Kenya and no revenues are generated from trophy hunting. Lions, however, bring in significant revenues from ecotourism.  Annually, Kenya’s 2000 remaining lions could be worth $17,000 each, or $34 million total, in the ecotourism sector (Barley 2009). The beneficiaries of lion tourism include the government and private tourism operators;  however, these stakeholders are not living alongside lions everyday. Landowners who live near lions are more in control of their populations, but do not receive financial benefits and hence do not have the incentive to conserve them (Nelson 2012).

It is difficult to conclude which model (the Southern African or the No-Hunting) is working better for lions based simply on the model itself, but based on lion population abundance and trends, funds generated, and social support, lions are faring better in Tanzania than they are in Kenya. Tanzania has a larger population of lions, is experiencing less steep declines, and generates revenues from both trophy hunting and ecotourism. Tanzania also has more protected areas which means that there is less direct contact between people and lions. However, threats to the lion persist despite the model.  An inclusion of additional countries within the Southern African model could allow for more robust comparisons.


References and the full text of the paper “Comparisons of national wildlife management strategies: what works, where and why?” can be found here. Authored by Rachel Golden, Shalynn Pack, and Ashley Walker.

Do you have updated facts and figures on status or policies related to African lions? Please comment!

While you were away…catching up on the latest protected area and PADDD news

This is the seventh in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).

Catching up on protected area and PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement) news after a 3-week hiatus should be simple, right? You may think: well, it must be very difficult and slow to change protected areas’ laws, so PADDD must not happen very often. My experience shows that this is not the case. The process that I use to mine the news and scientific evidence about protected areas and legal changes that affect them is enhanced by search engines, twitter hashtags, and RSS feeds. This searching generates loads of information that I further winnow down to identify the actual *legal changes* within parks, filtering out other topics (protected area planning, establishment, effectiveness studies, etc). After scrolling through dozens of stories about Cecil the Lion (which has inadvertently become the highest profile conservation story of the year, despite the fact that millions of endangered animals are killed legally and illegally every day), I’ve discovered several very important PADDD events. Globally, PADDD occurs more often that you may think. Here are highlights of the most recent protected area and PADDD news.

Bolivia: Bolivian president Evo Morales approved oil exploration in 7 out of 22 of its National Parks, where oil exploration was previously banned. By area, this change affects 22% of the land within Bolivian National Parks. If exploration led to the discovery of oil, this would ultimately lead to drilling and potential endangerment of public health and wildlife habitat. More information here.

This map, produced by the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB) shows the country’s national parks, biosphere reserves, and other protected areas in green, and both existing and planned oil and gas concessions. Oil and gas concessions are colored by the corporation involved, while light purple indicates blocks to be auctioned off in the future. The map appeared in CEDIB’s magazine PetroPress in 2013, where it accompanied a longer article. Source:

United Kingdom: The UK government did a “U-turn” and announced that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) will now be allowed within protected areas known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). This is a reversal of the previous announcement from January 2015 that would have banned fracking in these areas. The Telegraph reports that there are about 3,600 SSSI locations in the UK. Fracking has been linked to water and noise pollution as well as small earthquakes. More information here.

Cambodia: A new report from Forest Trends reveals accelerating legal and illegal deforestation within protected areas in Cambodia. Forested areas are leased for concessions, many of which are slated as rubber plantations. However, these permits are not always utilized appropriately: From the BBC:

"What happens is that the companies set up sawmills within the concession areas, but   they basically go outside and grab everything and buy from other areas, they bring it  into the concession and they launder it via the concession - this can go on for 2 or 3 years, they clean out the whole area." -Marcus Hardtke, an expert on forest issues in  Cambodia

Little to no enforcement of permitting allows deforestation to continue unabated. Without the legal frameworks in place to monitor protected lands, the “timber grab” is likely to continue.

The green areas are lands that have been sanctioned for rubber plantations. From

The green areas are lands that have been sanctioned for rubber plantations. From

United States: The House of Representatives and the Senate are considering several bills that would fast-track the permitting of gas pipelines in National Parks. If enacted, these bills would skip the requirement of Congressional approval for construction. The construction and operation of pipelines carrying natural gas poses risks to wildlife, public health, and safety. The construction process alone impacts local flora and fauna and throughout a pipe’s lifetime, ruptures and spills are possible.

These stories represent the top PADDD and protected area news stories of the past three weeks. The rate of new stories on protected area legal changes adds a layer of evidence suggesting that changes to protected areas occur constantly. However, the search for information on new legal changes is limited by what has already been reported in the traditional media and picked up on twitter. Hence, the information that can be gathered on PADDD (without intensive ongoing studies in each country) is likely to be an underestimate of the true magnitude of protected area changes. Only a large, concerted, international effort to track PADDD can hope to accurately quantify changes that affect protected areas on a global scale.

How do you know that protected areas are actually protecting anything? Use Matching!

This is the sixth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).

The forests surrounding many protected areas are being rapidly cleared or degraded. Shown is recent deforestation for oil palm plantations along the edge of Bukit Palong National Park in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by William Laurance,

The forests surrounding many protected areas are being rapidly cleared or degraded. Shown is recent deforestation for oil palm plantations along the edge of Bukit Palong National Park in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by William Laurance,

A new methodological approach is gaining traction in the conservation science community. This method is borrowed from the economics literature and has historically been used to analyze the impact of policies on future wages, socioeconomic status, or other economic variables. Today, conservation researchers are beginning to employ this rigorous approach – known as matching – for a variety of purposes. One prevalent application of matching is the evaluation of protected areas, both terrestrial and marine. Why is the matching approach so popular to evaluate protected areas? First of all, the need to rigorously evaluate protected area performance is becoming more widely acknowledged in the literature. The Convention on Biological Diversity includes targets about national designation of protected areas which should be effectively managed. Without monitoring and evaluation of these lands and waters, there would be no way to determine whether management were effective and whether the targets were met. 

Let’s suppose that you are interested in whether the protected areas in your country are preventing the loss of forests. Ok great. Can you simply compare the deforestation rates inside and outside the protected area? Unfortunately, that won’t be completely accurate. The lands inside and outside of that particular protected area might have different types of vegetation, terrain, or soil productivity. Because of these inherent differences, you cannot simply compare the inside to the outside. Ok, what about comparing the protected area before it was established to after? That is a bit better, because it is focused on the same piece of land. However, it doesn’t accurately capture the impact of protection because there may be other factors at play in this location. Perhaps other policies were enacted around the same time that affected deforestation.

inside outside

Ok, so how do we actually isolate the IMPACT of the protected area (the legal establishment itself) on deforestation? One way to do this is to use matching. To conduct matching, the researcher selects a piece of land that is protected and a similar (matching) piece of land that is NOT protected. The protected area is considered the “treatment” and the unprotected area is the “control.” Comparing the treatment and control to each other is a fair and simple way to quantify the benefits of protection. Hence, matching isolates the impact of the protection policy ITSELF and rules out extraneous factors that could affect the results (like other policies, the impacts of different landscape types or soil types, etc).

inside outside

How do you know if two pieces of land (or water) are a good match? Use covariates! Covariates are variables that correlate with the treatment and the outcome. It is necessary to use covariates because the location of protection or deforestation (or whatever outcome variable you are looking at) on the landscape is not random. Protected lands tend to be placed in isolated, mountainous areas with low soil productivity – high and far from development or urban areas. Also, deforestation occurs happen more often in places that are easier to access – closer to roads or other access infrastructure and also closer to the forest edge. By accounting for these factors using covariates (distance to roads, distance to forest edge, etc), the researcher can select well-matched control regions that are actually comparable to the protected area in question. This reduces bias in the analysis and allows you to compare apples to apples.  Further, it is worth noting that when using matching, the magnitude of the impact is likely to be much smaller than the estimate of impact using more traditional approaches simply because the covariates are accounted for.

What are some limitations of the matching approach? Simply put, sometimes you cannot find a perfect match. There may not always exist enough similar parcels on the landscape that are similar in access and topography to your protected area. Also, there is the issue of choosing covariates. How do you know that you have chosen the correct covariates or a sufficient number of them? As more researchers use matching, the scientific community will gain a more refined understanding of which covariates to use and when.

What research frontiers exist for applying matching in conservation? There are many! Matching could be used to evaluate conservation interventions other than protected areas – matching has been applied to quantify impacts of payments for ecosystem services, for example, The method could also be extended to indigenous reserves, community based natural resource management areas, or other area-based interventions. The application of matching to evaluate protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) is an area of research that merits exploration. Using matching can help answer questions like – what is the impact of changing a protected areas’ status on carbon storage for climate mitigation? What is the impact of reducing a protected area’s size on biodiversity? If a protected area’s protection is removed, how is land cover affected? There are endless possible areas of research and exploration that could employ matching.

What are some tools and resources to help with matching? There is a wealth of literature available on matching and impact evaluation – see here, here, and here.  There are also some R packages – MatchIt and Matching are two examples. If you are aware of other resources, post a comment below!

World Oceans Month – Marine Protected Areas and PADDD

This is the fifth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border

June is World Ocean's Month

June is World Ocean’s Month.

In honor of World Oceans Month, this post will feature two short stories about ocean protection and how that protection was almost compromised. First of all, why is there a month dedicated to the world’s oceans? Oceans cover about 70% of our planet and provide vital life support systems for people around the world – they provide wild fish, regulate the global climate, and support ecotourism industries for many nations. Policies to help protect the oceans from overfishing and pollution are in place and growing in their extent. One example of top-down policies which apply to the oceans are Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. MPAs are special places where human activity is restricted, whether it be commercial or local fishing, offshore drilling, or diving.

The world’s first MPA, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, was established in 1903 by President Roosevelt. This was 31 years after the first land-based park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. In recent years, the number of new MPAs and their coverage of the world’s oceans has been increasing. Notably, President Obama recently established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – the largest MPA in the world. MPAs are diverse entities – some are “no-take” zones, which prohibit all fishing activities. Others are “multiple-use” zones which may allow some fishing, but there are limits on catch and restrictions on the type of gear fishermen can use. MPAs can also place limits on diving for recreation or tourism. Due to these restrictions, marine protected areas have been controversial in some parts of the world. Opposition may come from policy makers or local communities, who claim that a proposed MPA could interfere with tourism or commercial or local fishing.

The benefits of marine protected areas for species have been documented extensively in the literature. A large meta-analysis of MPAs found that species density, biomass, organism size, and diversity on average were higher after the establishment of a park (or inside a park as compared to the outside). A recent update of this meta-analysis found that reserves can be effective even if they are small and regardless of location; it should be noted, however, that effects of reserves on different groupings of species can vary. In addition, MPAs can have positive “spillover” effects. This means that the MPA provides spawning habitat for fish; the fish hatchlings are then able to populate the surrounding area that is not protected and enrich the nearby fisheries.

Are MPAs beneficial for local people? It depends – the impacts are less straightforward and data availability is limited. One study examined changes in human well-being indicators (food security, resource rights, employment, community organization, and income) as a result of establishing a nearby marine protected area.  For the most part, food security remained stable or increased. Some local people gained more control over marine resources but about the same proportion lost control. This study shows that more data and research are needed to understand the influence of establishing a marine protected area on local communities and their livelihoods. It suggests that although MPAs are not universally “good” or “bad” for local people, they can be thought of as an opportunity to enhance livelihoods given proper implementation and other supportive policies and practices.

What about the legal support that MPAs need? Are marine protected areas currently threatened by legal changes that would weaken, shrink, or remove them? Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) has been proposed in at least two iconic marine parks, but the most recent information suggests that neither of these proposals has been successful. 

Great Blue Hole National Park, Belize

Great Blue Hole National Park, Belize

1. Marine PADDD averted in Belize – offshore drilling

The most recent marine PADDD story comes from Belize, a small, tropical, coastal country in Central America. Many conservation projects and organizations are interested in Belize – it is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, dwarfed only by the Great Barrier Reef. Despite the Belize Barrier Reef’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a recent proposal to conduct offshore drilling in this location was considered by the government, which would have opened up about 99% of Belize’s jurisdictional waters. Drilling could have affected many protected areas including seven World Heritage sites. After tireless opposition from environmental voices including Oceana, the Belizean government decided to drop the proposal last month. A salient argument against drilling was economic: Belize’s economy and millions of jobs depend on tourismResearch has found that a majority of tourists participate in marine activities during their visit to Belize, and that the value of coral reefs and mangroves in Belize is estimated at $289 million annually. Marine PADDD was successfully avoided in this small coastal nation.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

2. Marine PADDD avoided in the Great Barrier Reef – industrial waste

Last year, the Australian government issued a proposal to open up the Great Barrier Reef – the largest barrier reef in the world – to allow dumping of dredge spoil. Dredge spoil is produced during large-scale construction activities, usually related to ports. The Australian Government recognizes the impacts of dredging on their website:

“Dredging and material placement (also called spoil dumping) have relatively well-known potential impacts such as degradation of water quality, changes to hydrodynamics, smothering of benthic fauna and flora, damage to marine wildlife through the dredge mechanism, translocation of species and removal of habitat.”

This issue was raised to high-profile status within Australia and the international conservation community. The impending World Parks Congress in 2014 was held in Sydney; all eyes were watching the Australian government. Would they retract this proposal? With the pressure on, the Environment Minister of Australia announced that the reef would be safe from dredge spoil. In March 2015, the BBC reported that dredge spoil dumping will be banned in the Great Barrier Reef.

These marine conservation stories offer some hope. Both iconic protected areas faced proposed downgrades which would have weakened their regulations but neither passed.  An interesting feature that these stories have in common: the international news media and conservation community raised the profile of the proposals and garnered lots of attention. The involvement of civil society helped to reverse the course of these proposed PADDD events.

Happy World Oceans Month! 

#WorldOceansMonth #OceanOptimism #HopeSpots

“Border bills” in the United States – national security and protected areas

This is the fourth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge – located near the US-Mexico border

For the past four years, members of Congress have debated whether or not to allow border patrol agents additional access to public lands for national security purposes.  

In 2011, an act with a pro-conservation title (H.R. 1505: the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act) was introduced. The proposed bill would grant the U.S. Customs and Border Protection access to all public lands within 100 miles of the U.S. borders of Mexico and Canada. Within these large swaths of land, sixteen environmental laws would be waived including the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Why? So that the border agents could patrol, build roads, fences, or other infrastructure for national security purposes without the burden of cumbersome environmental regulations. Later that year, the bill was amended to only apply to lands within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border. Various iterations of the bill have been proposed for the last several years, but nothing has been passed. I’m going to call all of the related bills the “border bill” for simplicity.

What is the latest on the border bill? 

H.R. 399 and S. 208 are active bills currently being considered by Congress. Pew has created a map to show the lands that this bill would affect. As you can see on the map, the border bills would allow access to iconic parks such as Saguaro, Big Bend, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks


U.S. Public Lands Affected by the “Border Bill”

A separate but related border bill in Arizona (S. 750: Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act) would allow patrolling, surveillance, and equipment deployment in border lands. However, there is no mention of infrastructure or other construction in the full text. The map here shows the lands that this bill would affect.

Federal Lands opened to additional border security activities

Federal Lands opened to additional border security activities

What is so interesting about this legislation? Like many political debates, this is all about values, pitting national security and immigration reform against public land management and environmental stewardship.

Proponents of the bill argue that the government should do everything in its power to protect national security. They argue that immigration is out of control and that the border should be secured by any means necessary. Debates can get testy. Recently, John McCain responded to a question from Senator Carper of Delaware about the bill: “In all due respect, frankly, I don’t give a damn if somebody that lives in Delaware doesn’t like my efforts.” Proponents see immigrants as a threat to national security; border crossings are also linked to exacerbated drug and human trafficking.

Opponents, however, state that this bill would be destructive to the environment. Because the bill would waive environmental laws, the Customs and Border Patrol could avoid completing Environmental Impact Assessments required by NEPA which often delay projects but also allow for more environmentally friendly project design. Because these border bills waive the Endangered Species Act, arguably the strongest conservation law in the U.S. (if not the world), endangered species found in these areas could be put at substantial risk. Infrastructure projects – roads, fences, helipads, patrol bases – could themselves fragment habitat and disturb wildlife in sensitive areas.

Mountain Lion - Big Bend National Park

Mountain Lion – Big Bend National Park

These border bills, if passed, would constitute a systemic downgrade of protected areas such as National Parks and National Monuments. Downgrades are one type of legal change encapsulated in the concept of PADDD – protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement. You can explore the myriad protected areas that these border bills could affect on

If passed, it is unknown exactly how much of a toll these bills would take on the environment and to what extent they would enhance security. Although the bill does provide Customs and Border Patrol with access to large swaths of land, the agency may not effectively need access to very distant areas from the border. It is possible that the debate about the border bills is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue – constituents of Arizona and other border states may feel differently about the border security issue because it is more of a local concern for them.

It is difficult to summarize this complex issue. Overall, values are driving the political dispute over border security and public lands. Given the current political climate, the border bill debate is likely to continue without a resolution.