Americans celebrated a milestone in global conservation this year: the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. For many, wilderness designated under it has become the gold standard of nature protection in the US. While few protected areas in the world can match designated wilderness in a US national park for ensuring nature’s well-being, it is well to remember important cousins in the protected areas family. National and state parks, state wilderness areas, designated roadless areas in national forests, the national monuments in the Bureau of Land Management’s national landscape conservation system, US Fish and Wildlife Service’s national wildlife refuge system, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) marine protected areas, tribal wilderness, and private lands set aside explicitly for nature conservation are all part of the nature protection clan. While more wilderness is devoutly to be wished in this celebratory year, wilderness alone will not be sufficient to save nature in all its glorious expressions. It is therefore timely to consider how much of all kinds of protected areas we need to ensure that nature and natural processes continue into the future.
In a world where humans are just one species interacting among many, we would not need protected areas. This was the case for most of human history. Now we need them, for it is well- settled scientifically that humanity’s relationship with the natural world is in trouble. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) stated bluntly: “The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., land use change, pollution, over- exploitation of resources).” The human species has become so dominant that some argue we have entered a new geological age dominated not by the chemical and physical workings of the earth as they exist under their own motion from time to time but by us humans, and propose we call this new period the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011).
This is not new. Our species’ troubled relationship with nature has been widely understood for at least 25 years. In 1987 the United Nations published Our Common Future,
known widely as the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). It stated, “As the century closes, not only do vastly increased human numbers and their activities have that power [to alter planetary systems], but major unintended changes are occurring in the atmosphere, in soils, in waters, among plants and animals and in the relationships among all these.” A few years later, the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” which was signed by the majority of the living Nobel Prize winners in science at the time, said starkly:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about (Union of Concerned Scientists 1992).
The concerned scientists identified the need to bring environmentally damaging activities under control in order “to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on” and stated that “we must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.”