The U.S. government has finalized plans to expand mining and oil drilling in an area of Utah that had once been part of two protected areas, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The move comes three years after the current administration shrank the boundaries of the two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by 85 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
While the news was not a surprise — plans to permit resource extraction in these areas were expected — conservationists decried the move, the latest development in a growing global trend of legal rollbacks to protected areas and other types of conservation systems.
“We knew this was coming,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, PhD, a scientist at Conservation International who studies the impermanence of protected areas globally. “But at a time when science is telling us that we need to transition away from fossil fuel extraction, to see this happen in a place that had originally been set aside for protection is doubly concerning.”
Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2016, contains sacred tribal land and artifacts. Grand Staircase-Escalante, established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, originally had the largest land area of all U.S. national monuments. The reductions to these two areas were the largest such reductions in U.S. history, Golden Kroner said.
Like protected areas around the world, these monuments were intended to limit certain uses such as mining, fishing or agriculture. Research shows that when managed properly, such protections are effective for sustaining wildlife and ecosystem health, and mitigating climate change over long periods of time.
But in practice, not all protected areas are permanent: Recent analyses reveal that governments around the world are increasingly scaling back or eliminating protections for protected areas. This phenomenon, known as PADDD (short for “protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement”) includes processes to relax the rules governing use of resources, shrink park boundaries or eliminate protected areas entirely — threatening the natural areas they were designed to protect.
Conservation International and its partners have documented more than 3,700 enacted cases of PADDD in more than 70 countries covering more than 200 million hectares (494 million acres) — an area the size of Mexico.
Significantly, a PADDD event in one country can have a knock-on effect in others. Recent PADDD events in the U.S. and Brazil — which unveiled a bill Thursday to allow mining on indigenous lands — have been used as justification for reductions in protected areas as far away as Uganda, Golden Kroner said.
“Based on what we’ve seen around the world, decisions made in one country can send a signal to decision-makers in other countries and justify that this is OK,” she said. “There’s a moral license aspect to it, and that’s why this decision by the U.S. is that much more troubling.”
The United States — the birthplace of protected areas as we know them — is no stranger to PADDD events. A 2017 study by Golden Kroner of the history of Yosemite National Park in California showed how the boundaries of the park have changed since it was established in 1864. The impacts on ecological integrity were apparent, she told Conservation News at the time: “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.”
Conservation International is leading efforts to track these PADDD events and working with governments and partners to help ensure that protected areas stay protected.
Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International.
Cover image: Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. (© John Fowler/Flickr Creative Common)