Social and economic value of protected areas

2 03 2015
© P. Crowley/"mokolabs" via Flickr

© P. Crowley/”mokolabs” via Flickr

I’ve just come across an exceptionally important paper published recently in PLoS Biology by a team of venerable conservation biologists led by the eminent Andy Balmford of the University of Cambridge. My first response was ‘Holy shit’, and now that I contemplate the results further, I can now update that sentiment to ‘Holy shit!’.

Most people reading this blog wouldn’t bother questioning the importance of protected areas for the preservation of biodiversity – for them, it’s a given. While the effectiveness of protected areas globally is highly variable in that regard, there’s little contention among conservationists that we do not yet have enough of them to conserve biodiversity effectively, especially in the oceans that cover some 70% of the planet’s surface.

But that justification isn’t good enough for some people – perhaps even the majority. Even our own myopic, anti-environment political bungler Prime Minister has stated publicly that national parks just ‘lock up‘ areas to the exclusion of much more important things like jobs and income generation. He’s even stated that Australia has ‘too many‘ national parks already, and that timber workers are “the ultimate conservationists“. As I type those words, I can feel the bile accumulating in my throat.

The paper by Balmford and colleagues uses a fairly simple approach to build linear models explaining the variation in the number of visits to the world’s protected areas. Using potential predictors such as the size of protected areas, local population size, remoteness, ‘natural attractiveness’ (an independently scored scale of 1-5) and national wealth, they predicted the total number of visits to all but the smallest terrestrial protected areas around the world (based on data from 556 protected areas in 51 countries). While the models could have perhaps been a little more developed with respect to accounting for spatial autocorrelation, there is little doubt that the estimated visitation rates were anything but conservative.

Overall, they predicted that the world’s protected areas (excluding marine and Antarctic sites, as well as 40,000 protected areas < 10 ha in size) – 94,238 of them as listed in the World Database on Protected Areas – receive in the vicinity of 8 billion visits per year. That’s a little over 1 visit per person alive today on average per year! In the conservation understatement of the decade, that’s a lot of people, and not just some small pool of bearded, left-wing, sandal-wearing greenies with nothing better to do than be smelly.

The next whopper of a result was applying arguably less-certain estimates of per-visitor expenditures to their predictions of visitation. Although arguably imprecise, their conservative estimates place the total direct expenditure of these 8 billion visitors at around the US$600 billion mark – add in the consumer surplus (economic value of the trip to the visitor), you get a total value of about US$825 billion per year! Even Australian politicians might appreciate the enormity of these numbers (although, I still have my doubts).

The next time someone tries to convince you that protected areas are nothing more than a luxury that only exclude other economic opportunities, have these numbers ready to throw back at them. To our ignorant, egregious and deplorable Prime Minister, I say: “put that in your pipe and smoke it”.

CJA Bradshaw



7 responses

25 12 2015
Influential conservation papers of 2015 |

[…] on the wild side: estimating the global magnitude of visits to protected areas — I’ve also covered this one before, and here’s a little snippet of why it’s important: … Such powerful social and […]


6 03 2015
What we’ve been reading this week – One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

[…] Social and economic value of protected areas, ConservationBytes […]


3 03 2015

Niki- a great example of conventional thinking as a quick route to planetary extinction.


3 03 2015
Niki Rust

Laudyms, as a conservationist myself, I personally think protected areas are great, but as a pragmatist who has also spent time outside academia in the “real” world I understand how politicians think and how the general public vote. You average Joe Bloggs will say they like nature, they enjoy going to national parks, but really when it comes down to it, what they like more is secure jobs, cheap housing and cheap fuel.
I would love it if we all began thinking more long-term instead of short-term, but just think of how many things we do in our daily lives that give us a short-term benefit for a long-term cost – drinking alcohol, consuming too much sugar, smoking, gambling, eating too much red meat, having unprotected sex, doing drugs, etc. etc. Our brain is wired to get short-term pleasure rather than aim for long-term goals, so it’s actually incredibly difficult to get most people to appreciate nature because, in the short-term, it’s usually more profitable to destroy it. This is sad but true and the sooner conservationists realise this, the sooner we can start to determine how we can change this so that we’re finally playing ball.
At the moment all conservationists are doing is looking into the game from the outside, watching their team lose miserably and all they can do is shout. We need to learn the rules of the game in order to win.


2 03 2015
Niki Rust

But I guess to truly make politicians believe that protected areas are indeed worth protecting you need to show that you can make more money leaving them as protected areas rather than converting them to something else? If, for example, all of these protected areas were developed into prime real estate, their value would undoubtedly be more than if they were just left as protected areas.


2 03 2015

That’d be a pretty naïve way of looking at it, even for a politician. A one-off sale of land – with most of the money going into a few people’s pockets – would not equate to the ANNUAL income of renewable visitations/yr. It’s no contest, really.


2 03 2015
Niki Rust

The real estate was just one example out of thousands. Think if the land was sold to various places – mining, oil exploration, golf courses, forestry/timber, etc. Surely the reason why your Prime Minister wants to get rid of the protected areas is because in the short term the benefits will outweigh the costs? That’s surely why any politician does anything. Yes the long-term costs may outweigh the benefits (e.g. in carbon emissions, soil degradation, water table reduction etc.) but politicians tend not to think long-term. I guess what I’m trying to say is that politicians do act rationally (in the economic sense) to ensure that the short-term welfare of the nation is better off. Of course we humans find it hard to think long-term, which is one of the main reasons why we don’t truly value biodiversity for what it is.
Politicians don’t destroy protected areas because they are inherently evil – they do it because in the short-term the benefits usually do outweigh the costs. So to truly play ball with these people we need to show that in the short-term the benefits of protected areas outweigh their costs. And I can think of a lot of costs that in the short-term people are at risk of from protected areas (e.g. reduced access to natural resources that they were previously allowed to use, increased damage to property from wildlife, increased disease transmission from wildlife to livestock, etc.).


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