National Parks Traveler: "National Park System Expansion is Key to Biodiversity Protection"

RFF Senior Fellows Margaret Walls and Rebecca Epanchin-Niell are referenced in this article about the importance of natural landscapes for species conservation.

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July 28, 2023

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National Parks Traveler

“Conservation priorities” can be a moving target in the United States, as priorities often change from presidential administration to presidential administration. While the Trump administration prioritized economic development over conservation of nature, the Biden administration has swung 180 degrees, stating that the country must preserve 30 percent of its lands and waters for biodiversity by 2030.

It has a long way to go.

Margaret Walls, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., said that only about 14.2 percent of lands in the country carry the highest levels of protection, “having permanent protection from conversion of natural land cover and a mandated management plan in operation to maintain a natural state.”

On paper that percentage could be more than doubled, she said.

“We did some calculations that involved how much [Bureau of Land Management] and [Forest Service] land could be placed in a more protective status (like a national park),” Walls added in an email. The result: if all BLM and Forest Service lands were given the highest levels of protection, the United States could claim 673 million acres of protected lands, or almost 30 percent of the country’s land area.


“National Parks … aim to protect important natural and cultural values for current and future generations to enjoy unimpaired,” said Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, a University of Maryland associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “That unimpairment aspect is really important for biodiversity protection as well. I think national parks are an important ‘tool in the tool box’ for protecting biodiversity, even if it is not the only tool.”

Earlier this year Epanchin-Niell and two colleagues documented how protected lands such as national parks, and collective preemptive efforts, can keep species from being listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

“Preemptive conservation efforts are one policy approach that can help stem these challenges [preventing species extinction] and serve as an important pathway for conservation of imperiled species,” they found after studying 314 species considered for listing between 1996 and 2018.

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