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11.4: Protected Areas

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    It is important to protect natural areas for several reasons. Some people feel a cultural or spiritual connection to the wilderness. Every year, millions of people visit recreational lands such as parks and wilderness areas to experience attractions of the great outdoors: hiking among the giant sequoias in California, traveling on a photo safari in Kenya or just picnicking at a local county park. Besides providing people with obvious health benefits and aesthetic pleasures, recreational lands also generate considerable tourist money for government and local economies. Outdoor recreation activities such as hiking and camping benefit tourist industries and manufacturers of outdoor clothes and equipment.

    Establishment of preserves is one of the key tools in conservation efforts. A preserve is an area of land set aside with varying degrees of protection for the organisms that exist within the boundaries of the preserve (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). Governments or private organizations establish nature preserves. In 2016, the IUCN estimated that 14.7 percent of Earth’s land surface was covered by preserves of various kinds. This area is large, but only 20% of the key biodiversity areas identified by the IUCN were sufficiently protected. 

    The Mequon Nature Preserve trailhead in front wildflowers and a barn
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Mequon Nature Preserve in Wisconsin. Image by Jennifer Tomaloff (CC-BY-NC-SA).

    There has been extensive research into optimal preserve designs for maintaining biodiversity. Preserves can be seen as “islands” of habitat within “an ocean” of non-habitat. In general, large preserves are better because they support more species, including species with large home ranges; they have more core area of optimal habitat for individual species; they have more niches to support more species; and they attract more species because they can be found and reached more easily. One large preserve is better than the same area of several smaller preserves because there is more core habitat unaffected by less hospitable ecosystems outside the preserve boundary. For this same reason, preserves in the shape of a square or circle will be better than a preserve with many thin “arms.” If preserves must be smaller, then providing wildlife corridors between two preserves is important so that species and their genes can move between them. All of these factors are taken into consideration when planning the nature of a preserve before the land is set aside. In addition to the physical specifications of a preserve, there are a variety of regulations related to the use of a preserve. These can include anything from timber extraction, mineral extraction, regulated hunting, human habitation, and nondestructive human recreation.

    The public lands described below differ in their level of protection. For example, national parks and forests allow camping whereas wildlife refuges place more limitations on human activities. 

    Wilderness Areas

    Wilderness areas, comprise ecosystems in which human activity has not significantly affected the plant and animal populations or their environment. Natural processes predominate. According to the "Wilderness Act of 1964," wilderness areas are defined as being those areas where the nearest road is at least five miles away and where no permanent buildings stand. Activities that could disrupt native species, such as the use of motorized vehicles is prohibited. More than 100 million acres of land are now preserved as wilderness under this act. Sparsely populated Alaska contains the largest chunk of wilderness areas, over half of it. Although wilderness areas are scattered among most of the lower 48 states, the largest percentage is found in the western states. Few undesignated areas in the contiguous states remain that would qualify as wilderness.

    National parks and forests and wildlife refuges can contain wilderness areas. California contains significant wilderness areas, with over 4 million acres of National Forest Wilderness areas, and 1.5 million acres of mostly desert wilderness in the Mojave Desert National Preserve (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)). 

    Desert plants including yucca, cholla cactus, and prickly pear cactus grow between patches of bare soil and rock.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): A variety of unique plant life grows at Mojave Desert National Preserve. Image by John Fowler (CC-BY).

    Wilderness areas provide an essential habitat for a wide array of fish, wildlife, and plants, and are particularly important in protecting endangered species. For scientists, wilderness areas serve as natural laboratories, where studies can be performed that would not be possible in developed areas.

    National and State Parks

    The United States has set aside more land for public recreational use than any other country. The National Park System manages more than 380 parks, recreation areas, seashores, trails, monuments, memorials, battlefields, and other historic sites. It consists of more than 80 million acres nationwide (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)). The largest national park is Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska with over 13 million acres. California has eight national parks: Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Lassen, Redwood, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. Many national parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are such popular recreation destinations that the ecosystems of those parks are being severely tested by human activities.

    A body of water surrounded by herbaceous vegetation and conifer trees. Snowcapped mountains are in the background.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): National parks, such as Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, help conserve biodiversity. (credit: Don DeBold)

    Every state has also set aside significant amounts of land for recreational use. The California State Park System manages more than one million acres of parklands including: coastal wetlands, estuaries, scenic coastlines, lakes, mountains and desert areas. California's largest state park is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is the largest state park in the United States with 600,000 acres. The stated mission of the California State Park System is "to provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation".

    National Forests

    The National Forest System, managed by the U.S. Forest Service (part of the United States Department of Agriculture), consists of more than 170 forestlands and grasslands, which are available for activities such as camping, fishing, hiking and hunting. These are managed as multiple use lands, which balance the needs for recreation, grazing, timber, watershed protection, wildlife and fish, and wilderness.

    Some examples of national forests are the Sierra National Forest in California and the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The Coronado National Forest in Arizona is famous for "sky islands", or steep mountain ranges surrounded by low-lying areas. The dramatic increase in elevation is associated with changes in the flora and fauna (figure \(\PageIndex{d}\)). Explore national forests using this interactive map

    Aerial view of the Santa Teresa Mountains. There is snow at the top of the mountains, but the surrounding region is lower elevation.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{d}\): The Santa Teresa Mountains of the Coronado National Forest form "sky islands". Image by Jstuby (public domain).

    Wildlife Refuges

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage more than 500 national wildlife refuges (figure \(\PageIndex{e}\)), which not only protect animal habitats and breeding areas but also provide recreational facilities. Find a Refuge is an interactive map for locating wildlife refuges.

    A bobcat in a crouching on the soil surrounded by branches and rocks. It has brown and tan fur with stripes.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{e}\): Bobcat at Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge in southern California. Image by Mark Stewart/USFWS (public domain).

    Supplemental Reading

    America's Public Lands Explained. 2016. U.S. Department of the Interior. 


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 11.4: Protected Areas is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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