2030 A: Protection

Overview. Emotional connections and moral arguments to protect the diversity of nature for its own sake awaken broad support. Setting aside and protecting remaining major wild areas while still possible becomes a rallying point for conservationists. Legal/regulatory protection of species remains strong with improved protection for critical habitats.

Context/Drivers. With the looming threats like climate change and ecosystem collapse, protection of nature becomes more urgent.  Our moral sphere continues to expand beyond the cause of universal human rights to the rights of all other species and acceptable ways for us to relate to nature.

Strategies.  The moral argument for protecting nature motivates large numbers of people to support conservation and protect wild areas.  We inspire people to do it as part of their humanity rather than scare them into doing so because they will get hurt if they don’t.  Concepts like biodiversity have proven too abstract to resonate. People value the therapeutic, calming, beautiful and spiritual experience of natural settings. Telling amazing conservation success stories (whales, condors, wolves) inspires people to save more species, as does depicting tragic losses due to human activity.

Cordoning off wild areas apart from human presence, development, extraction or harvesting is critical to maintaining habitat. So called sustainable development often results after a while in degradation of ecosystem abundance.  Recreation degrades wild areas over time especially with overuse.  Stricter limits on number of visitors in wild areas are in place.  The wild areas strategy minimizes conflict with human development, which occurs outside the preserves.  Left undisturbed, nature adapts to a changing climate on its own.

Conservation, as practiced for decades, that buys land to keep it from development and mitigates imminent stressors such as habitat destruction and invasive species, is still the priority. Keeping species and ecosystems functioning well is key to their ability to adapt to future climate change, which is a factor in decision making, but not dominant in most places. Restoration ecology has seen a renaissance, with more and bigger restoration projects that aim to restore ecosystems to pre-industrial function and composition.

Major Players. Major religions, led by Pope Francis, embraced stewardship of the natural world as a moral responsibility. A new force of religious environmentalism has taken hold in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques around the world. Artists are part of reestablishing the emotional connection to nature. Civic/national pride motivates support for conservation. Protecting great places is part of the US heritage and identity.  Voters support some conservation funding:  portions of lottery proceeds, taxes on real estate transactions, bonds, etc.  Donors love saving places.  Large philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals buy significant amounts of land. Concentrated wealth is a benefit to conservation.

Some NGOs are focused on protecting places, others on species. Traditional marketing of threats to iconic species still works and is widely used. Charismatic species are leading indicators of ecosystem health, so this is more than a marketing ploy. Moving back to the spiritual and moral perspective was hard for many organizations that had been touting the scientific approach and a utilitarian quantitative point of view.  But in the end, numbers never changed anyone’s mind or created believers in protecting nature. Some like Audubon see public engagement in support of protecting nature a core mission.  Zoos, botanical gardens, natural history museums all play a role in saving species and in educating and engaging the public.

Science. The science community is active in promoting the protection of nature as our responsibility.  Scientific data analysis underpins all major land purchases.  The beauty and inspiration of the scientific understanding of nature and our place in it inspires many as well, as scientists learn to communicate it much better.

Research finds that ecosystems are complex, the result of long evolutionary processes; they carry value to us that we don’t yet fully understand.  We must preserve them for future generations. We really don’t know enough to “design” our ecosystems or choose among good and bad invasives.  Using traditional ecosystem states as targets is the only safe way to proceed, as proven by a number of high profile failures of innovative techniques.  Many invasive plants look good but do not support ecosystem food webs and their dominance can disrupt many other species from insects to birds. 

Regulation/Policy. Existing endangered species protection continues to be enforced and used with an eye to maintaining overall ecosystem health, abundance and stability.  Federal and State Fish and Wildlife agencies still do the most hands-on work to protect species and their habitats.  They continue to develop broad constituencies for their efforts, including hunters and fishermen. Many of the remaining most natural and relatively undegraded wild areas have been put under protection with a mixture of public and philanthropic funds. 

The public trust doctrine is strong, that public goods of natural systems cannot be appropriated for private gain without compensation or not at all if it is a finite resource.  Limits are tightened; litigation remains a major tool.  Collaborative approaches have been manipulated by big financial interests and protection thus weakened at times. Time and money has been spent exposing violators of key statutes like the Clean Water Act, making it clear that the existing law needs stronger enforcement. 

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