Shining a light on the tremendous “life-supporting role” natural ecosystems and biodiversity provide societies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held its annual World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia last month. With world population forecast to exceed 9 billion by mid-century, the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress also served to highlight the profound and intensifying threats conventional modes and means of economic development pose to ecosystems and the diversity of plant and animal species the world over.
Industrialization and the rise of consumption-driven economies has fueled an unprecedented explosion in human population, which now stands at some 7-plus billion. Along with the material benefits to humans, the overall costs in terms of depletion and degradation of natural resources and critical ecosystems have become increasingly apparent. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years to support the abundance and diversity of life we know today, from alpine glaciers to tropical forests, grasslands, mangroves and coral reefs, continue to be destroyed at alarming speed, while ecologists warn that a “Sixth Great Extinction” is under way.
Producing the first-ever assessment of the benefits and ecosystem services provided by UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites, Program Director Tim Badman commented: “The findings of this report show that Natural World Heritage is much more than a list of iconic sites with outstanding biodiversity and natural beauty. Recognizing their crucial role in supporting our well-being reinforces the need to boost our efforts to conserve these places.”
Sites of critical ecological and social importance
Backed by international treaty, Natural World Heritage sites are recognized internationally as being of highest significance when it comes to conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as natural beauty and cultural significance. Numbering 228 and spanning 279 million hectares (~ 689 million acres) – about 0.1% of the world's total protected areas – they include such iconic natural ecosystems as Africa's Serengeti savanna, Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, as well as Yosemite National Park in California.
Funded by Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2014 presents the results of a groundbreaking analysis of the economic, social and ecological value of natural World Heritage sites. Compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Center, the report includes a global analysis of carbon storage and water resources across all 228 sites.
According to the report:
“Natural World Heritage sites also contribute to global climate stability by storing significant amounts of carbon. Forests found in World Heritage sites across the tropical regions store 5.7 billion tons of carbon, which if released to the atmosphere would increase greenhouse gas emissions.”
Natural World Heritage sites, national parks and local economies
Fully two-thirds of UNESCO World Heritage sites, moreover, “are crucial sources of water and about half help prevent natural disasters or landslides,” the report authors note. Then there are the economic benefits.
More than 90 percent provide income from recreation and tourism, helping create employment and helping preserve traditional means of eco-based livelihoods and indigenous culture. The total value of jobs, tourism-related from Spain's Doñana National Park totals some €570 million (~$707 million) per year.
Fishing along Australia's Great Barrier Reef generates some A$250 million in annual revenues and “provides income to traditional Aboriginal owners who play a crucial role in sustainably managing parts of the reef. Tourism revenue from the Great Barrier Reef is worth more than $5.2 billion per year.
Summarizing the top benefits of World Heritage Sites, the report highlights:
- Recreation and tourism (93% of all sites);
- Aesthetic values related to beauty and scenery (93%);
- Resources for building knowledge (92%);
- Provision of jobs (91%);
- Contribution to education (84%);
- Wilderness and iconic values (84%);
Top ecosystem services
- Water (quantity and/or quality) (66%);
- Carbon sequestration (52%): World Heritage sites across the pantropical regions harbor a total of 5.7 billion tons of carbon;
- Soil stabilization (48%);
- Flood prevention (45%);
- Potentially another 20% of sites could also be providing these services.
From Russian World Heritage site to the Golden Mountains of Altai to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, IUCN report authors illustrate these points in 23 case studies, which highlight how each World Heritage site provides a wealth of unique benefits to communities and all life throughout their respective geographical areas.
“Natural World Heritage sites enhance our lives economically, as well as socially, culturally and spiritually – the full range of benefits they provide goes far beyond monetary gain,” commented Dr. Beate Jessel, president of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. “It's our collective responsibility to ensure that we care for these inspiring places and maintain their values so that future generations can continue to enjoy them.”
National parks an 'economic engine' in the U.S.
Here in the U.S., a 2012 report from the National Park Service revealed that recreational visits to the U.S.' 401 National Park Service areas generated $14.7 billion in spending in 'gateway' communities within 60 miles of such sites. Accounting for secondary spending effects, NPS found that that spending “supported 243,000 jobs and contributed $26.8 billion to the national economy.
Commenting on the report, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated:
“Our parks are economic engines for local communities. They support business ranging from motels and restaurants to gas stations and tour companies and, of course, the people who work in those businesses.”
“The sequester was a reminder of the parks’ importance to local economies,” Jewell added. “The shutdown cost the parks and nearby communities nearly half a billion dollars in visitor spending. Let’s hope we don’t ever have to go there again.”
Our connection to nature and natural ecosystems is profound and innate, but perhaps not unbreakable. But we do so at unspecified but undoubtedly great cost. The first of our kind to create and harness fire and fashion tools and technology from bone, wood and stone set humankind on a path of scientific discovery and technological innovation and development that continues unabated.
It's inherent in our human nature to assure our own survival, increase our comfort and perpetuate our species. It's also inherent in our nature to be able to come up with ways of doing so that don't destroy all other creation and leave future generations in an increasingly poisoned, barren and depleted biosphere. Severing our connections to the natural world as we have been doing is an unprecedented step-change in human evolution. In a religious or spiritual sense, perhaps it can be considered our greatest sin.
*Image credits: UNESCO World Heritage Organization; U.S. National Park Service