We Need To Move Our National Parks If We Want To Protect Our Animals

The majority of protected land is in the western U.S. That’s not where most endangered species are.

The United States has some of the largest and most spectacular national parks anywhere in the world, but there’s one way in which they’re deficient: They’re in the wrong places. From the point of view of biodiversity–or the diversity of species in particular places–it would be better to move them, no matter how unrealistic that prospect seems.


That’s the upshot from new research that identifies the habitats of 3,000 native species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, and trees. The research finds that protected lands, both federal and privately owned, “do not adequately cover the country’s unique species.”

USFWS Flickr

Although 8% of the U.S. is protected, most of that land is in the West. Many of the rarest and endangered species are in the Southeast and southern Appalachian regions.

“Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinctions, and so where and how much society chooses to protect is vital for saving life on the planet,” says Clinton Jenkins, the lead author of the paper, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The U.S. has protected many areas, but it has yet to protect many of the most biologically important parts of the country.”

Of course,we can’t just up and move national parks. This research also doesn’t take into account the fact that national parks are prized for their beauty, not just their species diversity.

The maps here show levels of animal diversity (fish, mammals, amphibians, and so on), the level of endemic species (that is, species that only exist where they’re found), and where those animals are most threatened. Overlaying that data to a map of protected land, the researchers then come up with a “priority index” color-coded for seriousness (red is the greatest priority). As you can see, most of the threatened species are in the lower right-hand corner. (The maps cover only the bottom 48 states, not Alaska or Hawaii).

We’ve written about Clinton Jenkins’s work before: here are some very detailed biodiversity maps he produced for the whole planet. For the U.S., he has more maps here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.