Why Federally Protected Lands Are So Crucial

©. Federally protected lands in light blue; privately held, unprotected lands are in orange. (Adam Eichenwald, Tufts University)

Over the last 30 years, habitat loss for imperiled species in the U.S. was more than twice as great on non-protected private lands than on federally protected public lands.

The idea behind protected natural areas is simple: Protect them in perpetuity from those oh-so destructive ways of humans. These lands run the gamut from National Parks and National Forests to National Monuments and the National Trails System, among many other designations. (You can learn more about them here: What are public lands?)

Are protected public lands always protected?

One might assume that once protected, always protected. But you know they say about assuming things ... and as it turns out, the current administration appears to see "protected" a bit differently. According to an article in Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, a study in the journal Science found that the Trump administration is responsible for "the largest reduction of protected public lands in history. Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that led to dramatic reductions in the size of two national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears National Monument, shrunk by 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shrunk by 51 percent."And that's just for starters.

“There’s a quiet, almost covert, effort to dismantle the public lands management infrastructure,” Jim Lyons, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Interior Department in the Obama administration, told Yale. “It’s very effective. I call it evil genius.”

And really, is it any surprise? The acting director of the Bureau of Land Management is William Perry Pendley, who has long been a champion against federal control of public lands. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt – whose agency is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources – has a curious CV for the position. His last job was as an industry lobbyist with a law firm that represents clients like Rosemont Copper Mine, Halliburton Energy Services, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America – none of which would seem to be all that interested in preserving wilderness.

bears ears monument
Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah was established to protect one of most significant cultural landscapes in the U.S. BLM

Federally protected lands preserve habitat for imperiled species

So anyway, why does it matter? The answer to that question lies in more than 30 years of data (1986 to 2018) analyzed by scientists at Tufts University and the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife. What they discovered is this:

Habitat loss for imperiled species in the U.S. over this period was more than twice as great on non-protected private lands than on federally protected lands.

As we are facing the extinction of species across the board, the study proves that federal land protection and the U.S. Endangered Species Act are effective ways for decreasing losses in species habitat. And that's not important just for saving cute animals; losses in biodiversity have far-reaching effects.

"Habitat loss and modification are the primary drivers of global losses in biodiversity, leading to reductions in population size and reproductive rates for many common and endangered species," notes Tufts University in a statement on the study.

While there has been plenty of research looking at habitat loss around the globe, the study authors point out that most research has had limited geographic scope or looked at only one or a limited range of species. Which prompted them to attempt an understanding on a national level "how land jurisdictions and conservation policies translate to habitat protections on the ground."

With this in mind, they gathered large scale data on habitat for 24 vertebrate species, all from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. The species have ranges both in federal and non-federally owned lands, covering nearly 50 percent of the country from coast to coast and including all major ecosystems in the continental U.S.

imperiled species
Species included in the analysis: Gray wolf; aplomado falcon; Florida scrub jay; Utah prairie dog. D Avery; Burian; J Gallagher; Thaller.

Species included in the analysis: Gray wolf; aplomado falcon; Florida scrub jay; Utah prairie dog. (Photos: D Avery; Burian; J Gallagher; Thaller.)/CC BY 4.0

Tracking habitat change for those species over time, they found that:

  • Imperiled species lost the least habitat (3.6 percent) on federally protected lands.
  • Imperiled species ost the most habitat (8.6 percent) on private lands lacking any protections.
Meanwhile, state lands and lands protected by non-governmental organizations had losses of species habitat similar to one another (4.6 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively) – still greater than losses on federal land.

The authors explain what's going on, noting that "individual property rights are highly protected in the US ... and conservation laws like the ESA include exemptions for private actors." They say that these inefficient protections outside of federal lands will undermine past, present, and future conservation work.

"Even where laws do apply, a lack of visibility and the voluntary nature of conservation initiatives on private lands mean that regulations may still fail to provide protections to habitat (eg oil development within the geographic range of the lesser prairie chicken). In addition to the lack of oversight over private actors, landowners may engage in preemptive habitat destruction to avoid perceived ESA land‐use restrictions..."

Since the study scanned 30+ years, the team was able to discern other information as well, such as the relative impact that ESA or Red List designations have in protected versus non-protected lands. Not surprisingly, they found that the ESA contributed to habitat protections on federal lands, with species losing less habitat after they were listed than before.

Map showing habitat loss for red-cockaded woodpeecker

© Habitat loss (red areas) for the Red-cockaded woodpecker listed as endangered in the Gulf state region. (Adam Eichenwald, Tufts University)

"By zooming out to the national level, the study provided us with a unique opportunity to examine whether certain regulations and jurisdictions were more effective in protecting habitats of endangered species," said Michael Evans, senior conservation data scientist at the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife and co-author of the study. "For example, we found that habitat preservation was linked more closely to federal protected land status and ESA protection, regardless of agency-specific regulations. Regulations for protection are different outside of federal lands, where reporting of environmental impacts is required, but minimization of these impacts may not be required."

Another interesting thing the authors explain is that even when a species' range was entirely within federally protected land, what goes on around that land can have an impact.

"We know from research conducted by other scientists that development surrounding protected areas can reduce the effectiveness of those protections for animals," said Adam Eichenwald, biology graduate student in the laboratory of professor Michael Reed at Tufts and first author of the study. "Not only that, but global climate change can force species to move, which we worry may eventually result in areas designed to protect species without any of their protected occupants."

"At a time when the planet faces a looming extinction crisis, we need every tool available to protect species and their habitats," said Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife and a co-author on the study.

"This research illustrates the critical importance of America's federal lands system for conserving wildlife habitat and the urgent need for better protections on other land ownerships," he adds. "Biodiversity and the services it provides to society can be conserved through concerted effort and transformative change; protecting habitats must be an essential part of that effort."

The study, US imperiled species are most vulnerable to habitat loss on private lands, was published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.