What on earth are protected areas?

What on earth are protected areas?

A look into how Canada can up its conservation game

What on earth are protected areas?

A look into how Canada can up its conservation game

By the National Environmental Treasure

We hear the term “protected areas” all the time, but what does it even mean? New research identifies ecosystem hotspots that Canada needs to protect.

As humans continue to encroach upon the remaining wilderness and threaten the habitat of so many species, solutions are needed to protect biodiversity. An incredibly valuable avenue to conserving plants, animals, fungus and microscopic organisms alike, is increasing protected areas. But, what on earth is a “protected area?” It’s a term thrown around by everyone and their dog, like politicians, environmental activists and outdoor recreationists. We’re here to tell you the real meaning of protected areas and what they do for biodiversity.

Person in canoe on lake in mountains
Willi Nuechterlein from Getty Images/Canva

What are protected areas and how do they protect biodiversity?

Protected areas come in many different shapes and forms. Some are protected as national parks or nature reserves while others conserve community areas or entirely wild spaces. But their main goal is to protect biodiversity through long term conservation efforts. A protected area might use some or all of these conservation strategies: ecological research and monitoring, management of natural processes including prescribed burns, visitor use regulations and public awareness programs. Protected areas also enhance and safeguard ecosystem services, which are essential for human health, wellbeing, and our livelihoods.

There are also Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA), Tribal Parks, and Indigenous Cultural Landscapes, many of which are managed by Indigenous Guardians. According to ilinationhood.ca, this program was created “to empower communities to manage ancestral lands according to traditional laws and values.” Guardians monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites, protect sensitive areas and species, play a vital role in creating land-use and marine-use plans, and also promote intergenerational sharing of Indigenous knowledge. One example of a new IPCA is Qat’Muk (Central Purcell Mountains), a critical habitat for wildlife that holds spiritual significance for the Ktunaxa Nation.

Grizzly bear in green shrubbery
Jillian Cooper from Getty Images/Canva

Global commitments

Back in 2010, Canada, along with several nations from across the world committed to protecting 17% of terrestrial lands by 2020. Referred to as Target 1, this was established as part of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and their global Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

So, how did Canada do? Well, as of December 2019, Canada has protected just over 12% of its land. We might not have met our target but we did gain valuable insight into protected areas. Canada’s goal should not only be to increase our percentage of protected areas but to do so more strategically.

Placing protected areas where they are needed

Designating protected areas shouldn’t be a guessing game. In January 2021, a first of its kind map identifying Canada’s ecosystem hotspots was published by the journal, Environmental Research Letter. Conducted by Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), WCS Canada and Universities of British Columbia, Carleton and McGill, this research identified important areas for three ecosystem services including freshwater, carbon storage for climate regulation and nature-based recreation. The ecosystem services maps were overlaid with current protected areas and the findings are a tell-tale sign that more strategic placement of protected areas is needed.

ecosystem hotspots and protected areas canada

Combined hotspots (shown in red, above) represent both capacity and provision for all three benefits (freshwater, carbon storage and recreation). Protected areas are shown in green. From the study, “Identifying key ecosystem service providing areas to inform national-scale conservation planning.” Researchers: Matthew Mitchell, Richard Schuster, Aerin Jacob, Dalal Hanna, Camille Dallaire, Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Elena Bennett, Bernhard Lehner and Kai Chan.

As it turns out, existing parks aren’t doing a swell job at protecting the places where people rely on nature. The study revealed that “one-half to two-thirds of current ecosystem service hotspots (54-66%) overlap with current and planned resources extraction activities.” At this point, you may be wondering, where the heck are these hotspots? Well, the report identifies many important hotspots that require focused conservation efforts including the eastern mountain ranges of British Columbia, Lake Superior and Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Catching fish in river
Shaunl from Getty Images/Canva

So, what’s the hold-up?

In 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau announced the government’s commitment to protecting 25% of land and ocean by 2025 and 30% by 2030. But, creating protected areas isn’t just about reaching these goals; it’s about protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change and ensuring the security of ecosystem services. It isn’t good enough to simply select a plot of land, designate it as a protected area and then call it a day. We have to be intentional with selecting an area to protect and allow the research to guide decision making.

With this new research, we now know which areas are important hotspots for ecosystem services that human populations directly depend upon. The study also urges the consideration of biodiversity when creating and expanding protected areas. While this isn’t an easy task, it is a necessary one to ensure we are protecting key places vital to the health of humans, wildlife and the overall environment.

How can you support protected areas?

1. Ask your community leaders and elected officials about what actions they will be taking to help protect biodiversity and how this will be integrated into their pandemic recovery strategies.

2. Learn more about protected areas and biodiversity from Jeremy Guth, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative board member, here.

3. Spread the word about protected areas. Share this blog with friends, family and on social media.