The world’s national parks are not as secure as we think

The world’s national parks are being quietly chipped away, restructured and modified — and no one seems to be talking about it.

Almost no one is studying it either, which is how Ph.D. candidate Rachel Golden Kroner found herself investigating the hundreds of cases of protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement — or PADDD — enacted and proposed across the United States. California’s Yosemite National Park jumped out to Golden Kroner as an interesting research subject given its 150-year conservation history; in a recent paper published in the journal Ecology and Society, she shared her findings on the effect of PADDD events on the park.

In light of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday and the celebration of these protected areas that seem so permanently embedded in the American landscape, Golden Kroner’s research into the history of Yosemite reveals the impermanence and vulnerability of our protected areas. Which raises an important question: What does it mean for other protected areas in the U.S. and around the world if even Yosemite — a World Heritage Site and historic landmark loved and visited by millions of people — isn’t securely protected?


Why Yosemite?

Mike Mascia, Conservation International’s senior director of social science and a world leader in PADDD research — as well as one of the paper’s co-authors — explained Yosemite’s appeal for PADDD research: “Yosemite is a great case because it’s an iconic site that first started to be set aside for protection in 1864 (through the Yosemite Grant Act), so you can see over the long haul what these legal changes mean. It served as a really nice model system for exploring — over more than a century — what happens when part of the landscape is downsized and when some of the downsizing is subsequently reversed and re-protected.”

Today, Yosemite encompasses almost 3,030 square kilometers (1,170 square miles). Golden Kroner’s research focuses on the park’s boundaries, noting how they have changed since its earliest days, and what those changes have meant for the forest and for habitat fragmentation, which is a key indicator of ecological integrity and has serious short- and long-term consequences for biodiversity. “I clearly found that places that were removed from the park and remain unprotected today are more fragmented than places that remain protected in Yosemite,” she explained. “I was able to uncover not only the dynamic history of the boundaries, but also the legacy of those boundary changes for forest fragmentation.”

Nothing is off limits

Yosemite’s boundaries were changed and diminished primarily to provide access to mineral and logging resources. Some sections of land with existing mineral claims or logging concessions on them hadn’t been considered when the park’s original boundaries were drawn. Later, to take advantage of these resources once they’d been mapped and identified, the government re-drew the boundaries of Yosemite to allow mineral and timber extraction to occur.

Early in the 20th century when the bulk of these PADDD events were happening, Yosemite as we think of it today didn’t exist — it wasn’t yet an iconic global destination. In reality, Yosemite has had sections removed and then re-protected, eliminated entirely or moved. In fact, today the park is 29.8% smaller than its original boundaries. This fact leads Mascia to caution people to remember that regardless of location, no protected area is totally off limits. “No site is immune to these debates and to these pressures. We know that several World Heritage sites around the world have been either proposed for PADDD events or have seen PADDD happen in them. And that’s not just developing countries. It’s also happening in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.”

Lasting impact

The legal changes that occurred early in the history of Yosemite National Park have had lasting, observable effects over the past century. So the PADDD events that being enacted or proposed now around the world have real implications for the future of these protected areas — and for conservation.

Golden Kroner points out a key finding from the Yosemite research that can be applied to protected areas worldwide: “If certain PADDD events are reversed and sites are re-protected — as happened in Yosemite – there can be lasting positive effects. For instance, sites that were downsized and later re-protected, even decades later, were more ecologically intact than sites that were never protected or sites where protection was lost permanently. This suggests that we must continue to monitor protected areas for many years after they are established to identify PADDD and assess its consequences. If applied in the right places, we may also consider reversing PADDD as a conservation strategy.”

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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