To protect plants, replace conservation parks
13:00 02 July 2010 by Wendy Zukerman
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To best protect threatened plants, inefficient national parks should be sold off and the proceeds used to buy more cost-effective ones.
So says Richard Fuller at the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, who reckons that replacing 1 per cent of Australia’s protected areas could significantly increase the number of vegetation types – such as grasses and woodlands – being protected.
Worldwide, there are 100,000 regions dedicated to biodiversity maintenance, covering 12 per cent of countries’ land and territorial waters.
“Historically, a lot of these areas were designated because we couldn’t use them for economic or agriculture purposes, not for their biodiversity value,” says Fuller. “Consequently, many species and habitats remain inadequately protected.” In some of the world’s protected areas, for example, up to 83 per cent of threatened plants are found outside protected areas.
Fuller says environmentalists who try only to increase the number of protected sites are effectively “adding to an inefficient system”. Instead, he says, governments should sell off expensive land of low conservation value and buy new sites instead.
Cutting up Australia
Fuller’s team has developed a mathematical model to test their theory in Australia. The group divided the country’s landmass into around 65,000 sections before assigning each a “conservation value” based on the rarity of the vegetation type within it: higher values were given to areas where more native vegetation has been lost since 1750, when Europeans began widespread clearance.
They then divided each section’s conservation value by its financial value, enabling them to rank currently protected areas in
terms of cost-effectiveness. In the model, the least cost-effective areas were sold off and the funds used to buy more cost-effective sites.
For a vegetation type to be considered as “protected” in the team’s model, 15 per cent of the land area it covered in 1750 must lie in protected areas. Currently, only 18 out of 60 Australian vegetation types are protected by this measure. Replacing just 1 per cent of the least cost-effective areas boosted the number to 54. “We get an enormous increase in efficiency without spending more money,” says Fuller.
“It’s a logical approach with obvious benefits for protected biodiversity,” says Jon Nevill, an environmental consultant in Hampton, Victoria, Australia. “But I have no confidence that governments could effectively manage such a difficult programme.”
Martin Taylor, a protected areas policy manager at environmental campaign group WWF-Australia, is less complimentary. He says the idea of “trading off protected areas to buy theoretically better ones” is “quite horrifying”.
Sacrificing a protected area based solely on vegetation types without consideration of native animals or local geography is troublesome, he says. “No area can be written off so lightly as these authors do.”
Fuller defends his approach, saying the study is just a demonstration. “If this idea was to be put into practice you would need to consider these other values.”
“All we wanted to do was show how significantly and quickly the gains could be made,” says Fuller. “We wanted to start a debate about how best to protect our environment.”