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”.