Nature Needs Half

Conservation group promoting an ambitious new proposal for wilderness protection

During the last half century conservationists around the world have won some impressive victories to protect wild places. Here in the US, the Wilderness Act preserves some 110 million acres of public land. Private holdings by groups like The Nature Conservancy safeguard tens of millions of additional acres. The idea of protecting ecosystems from industrial development has spread around the world. There’s the Mavuradonha Wilderness in Zimbabwe, the El Carmen ecosystem in northern Mexico, Kissama National Park in Angola, and the Tasmanian Wilderness in Australia, to name just a few stunning parks and preserves; UNESCO’s world heritage list includes 197 sites of special beauty and/or biodiversity.

Patagonia AlivePhoto by Trey RatcliffNature Needs Half has set out an unbelievable challenge: to formally, legally set aside one half of Earth’s land and water as interconnected natural areas.

But conservation biologists now recognize that these sanctuaries are limited in what they can accomplish precisely because they are special — which is to say, rare. Parks and preserves are all too often islands of biological integrity in a sea of human development. To really protect natural systems, healthy biomes need to be the rule, not the exception.

To achieve that vision, The WILD Foundation, a multinational NGO based in Boulder, Colorado, is pushing a bold concept called “Nature Needs Half.” In a world in which even the wealthiest governments routinely abdicate their responsibilities toward future generations and the environment, Nature Needs Half has set out an unbelievable challenge: to formally, legally set aside one half of Earth’s land and water as interconnected natural areas.

This is, of course, a hugely ambitious endeavor, opposing as it does the assumption that Earth’s resources are here to be exploited solely by humans. We live in what some have called the “Anthropocene,” the Age of Man, a world in which every aspect of physical being, from the oceanic depths to the troposphere, has been radically altered by humankind. Rivers are being dammed, forests leveled, oceans emptied and wildlife eradicated. It’s not a pretty picture, but as an empiric truth it’s difficult to refute. Consider a few facts:

  • The long-term acidification of the oceans by our ongoing buildup of industrial carbon dioxide is killing off coral reefs around the world, resulting in the loss of a critical barrier to storm surge and further endangering coastal areas at heightened risk from rising seas and stronger and more frequent storms.

  • Hydropower is increasingly being developed in South America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, preventing the migration of anadromous fishes and destroying the elaborate flood-regime ecosystems of biomes like the Amazon
    .
  • The accelerating rate of animal and plants extinctions under the twin hammers of climate change and habitat loss is being compared to Earth’s five other extinction events that followed catastrophic geophysical change such as meteor impact or sudden tectonic shifts. In the case of the sixth great extinction, however, the root cause is purely biotic: us. Either from directly causing species decline through poaching, habitat conversion and the introduction of competitive exotic species, or by indirectly altering ecosystems through our industrial assault on the planet’s atmosphere, one in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of the world’s turtles are facing the eternal night of extinction.

Given those facts, the Nature Needs Half goal is startling in the grandiosity of its vision and the ambitious range of its projects. It is also, in a word, fair. “Half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life, to make a planet both self-sustaining and pleasant,” is how eminent naturalist E.O. Wilson explains the idea in his book The Future of Life. Other endorsers include marine explorer Sylvia Earle and the Zoological Society of London. And while the scope and scale of Nature Needs Half is unprecedented, conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund recognize that connecting biodiverse “hotspots” must guide preservation efforts.

The stated goal of Nature Needs Half is “to ensure that enough wild areas of land and water are protected and interconnected (usually at least about half of any given ecoregion) to maintain nature’s life-supporting systems and the diversity of life on Earth, to ensure human health and prosperity, and to secure a bountiful, beautiful legacy of resilient, wild nature.” Underlying this objective is the assumption that humanity, despite its often destructively “unnatural” behavior, is inescapably a part of life on Earth, and that efforts to preserve and protect untrammeled wilderness areas are ultimately means of assuring that the ecosystem services people depend upon are available to us in the distant future. We’re all in this together, and the sooner H. sapiens gets that through its pointy little head, the better off we’ll all be.

How is “protected” defined? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines it quite flexibly: “A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Thus any number of means may be put into play to preserve land, from conservation easements in Virginia to armed ranger patrols in Namibia; what matters is the end result, namely the retention of naturally functioning ecosystems over time.

During the past two decades scientists have determined that the planet’s ecoregions need at least 50 percent ecological integrity, and in some cases more, to ensure the survival of their biological productivity over the long term. (In plain language, “ecological integrity” means that an area’s biodiversity and basic processes are mostly intact.) The goals of Nature Needs Half simply echo the empirical scientific reality: to function over time the world’s biomes need at least half of their structural integrity preserved from human alteration. We are currently falling short of that. A recent report from Yale’s Environmental Performance Index states that just17 percent of Earth’s terrestrial areas and inland waters, and less than 10 percent of marine areas, are currently protected (though for many parks and refuges in poorer countries this protection is often illusory), while about 43 percent remains relatively open and undeveloped, with low human populations and generally undamaged ecosystems.

Nature Needs Half is pursuing its aim in two simultaneous directions: the protection of at least half of the planet’s mostly intact contiguous wilderness areas — concentrating on Eurasian boreal forests, the Amazon basin and Antarctica — and the identification and protection of those fragments or hotspots of abundant biodiversity that have become isolated islands in a sea of human activity.

The aims of Nature Needs Half are precisely the kind of bold approach, rooted in cutting-edge science, which our increasingly desperate times call for. In an Anthropocene of radical climate change and accelerating species extinctions, nothing less than a grand vision of what might yet be achieved will bring about the preservation of our remaining unspoiled landscapes. As the most farsighted wilderness preservation program on Earth, Nature Needs Half promises to be the kind of revolutionary undertaking that, if its aims are fully or even mostly achieved, will be looked back on centuries from now as perhaps the most important attainment in modern human history.

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