Why Conservation Efforts Matter Now More Than Ever

Desiree Yanes Sequoia National Park
Courtesy of Desiree Yanes
Sequoia National Park

My home is in the vanishing oak-hickory forests in the sprawling urban canyons of New York City. But I know enough about the wars in the southwestern desert to have had my heart broken there too.

I’ve never visited Grand Staircase or Bears Ears National Monuments. But I’ve driven down Highway 89, which is approximately 20 miles west from there. I’ve seen great expanses of red rock canyons holding up sapphire skies with their tall, wiry arms. I’ve crushed the needles of ponderosa pine between my fingers and breathed in the scent of vanilla, toffee and orange. I’ve been caught between the stares of a herd of mule deer with their crowns of bone. I’ve looked out onto the vastness of the red rock wilderness and felt as small and insignificant as a tiny ant.

“After continued habitat destruction and fragmentation, some species will survive for a while, but then populations will become too small to persist.”

The desert will do that to you. It will put you back in your infinitesimally small place in a vast, exploding universe.

But these sacred landscapes are so much more than just beautiful scenery. They are a sanctuary to a wealth of biodiversity. They are homes to some of the gentlest creatures: pronghorn deer, prairie dogs, tortoises, horned lizards. A place of rest for migrating birds.

So like most people, I was devastated to learn that President Trump declared to remove over 2 million acres of land from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments. Releasing these protected lands to oil and gas extraction threatens to erode the very beauty of the red rock desert and the species that call it home.

We are moving in the opposite direction of where we need to be.

Protected areas such as national parks and monuments are sanctuaries for wildlife in a landscape dominated by humans. We need to protect the largest possible reserves and the native biodiversity surviving within them. Yet climate change presents a fundamental challenge even to these protected areas.

Climate change doesn’t respect park boundaries.

As the climate warms, conditions within protected lands may become unsuitable for the species they were designed to protect. They will need to migrate. Building natural corridors to help funnel species from one protected area to the next will enable species to shift their distribution as the climate changes. We need to be building bridges, not burning them.

An established principle in conservation biology is that a reduction in area results in a fraction of species disappearance. After continued habitat destruction and fragmentation, some species will survive for a while, but then populations will become too small to persist for more than a few generations because of vulnerability due to low population numbers, interbreeding depression, inability to adapt to a changing environment and a variety of other factors. As the remnants of our country’s wilderness vanish, we commit species to extinction.

Americans and visitors from abroad explore over 400 sites within the national park system: among them national parks, monuments, historic sites and battlefields. We even fragment our national parks with roads, hotels, restaurants and camping grounds. And why? To give people access to these wild places in the hope that if they have the opportunity to see a field of lupine flowers, bison thundering through the prairie or a mother tending to her cub, it would evoke in us an ethic of conservation. Because one of humanity’s biggest failings is that we cannot love what we cannot see. How unfortunate. We swipe left to any issue that doesn’t directly concern us.

We are far too greedy, short-sighted and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. And as we quarrel with each other, more public lands are sold, more resources are swallowed up and more species are at risk of becoming extinct.

I sincerely hope we can lay aside our disagreements—political, religious or otherwise—and work together to preserve life.