The world's national parks fall on hard times

The national parks movement, launched by the United States more than a century ago and since then joined by some 130 nations, faces a major crisis at the peak of its phenomenal worldwide growth.

As governments grapple with depressed economies, national parks are among the services taking the sharpest budget cuts.

In many developing nations rural people scratching out an existence on land within or near parks regard the protected lands as depriving them of needed firewood, water supplies, and cropland, while others in the same countries press to have parkland opened to logging, mining, hydropower projects, and other development.

Even governments that have long-established national park systems, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are under unprecedented pressures from oil, mining, logging, agriculture, hydropower and geothermal energy interests to open parts of national park systems to development.

At this World National Parks Congress in Bali, these threatening conditions were met head-on by delegations from 68 nations. Leaders from developing and industrial nations alike found strong support from their suggestions that both sustainable development and national park survival could be accomplished if countries would provide additional public lands as buffer areas around or near national parks or nature reserves.

Firewood and food sources would be made available to the needy, and some commercial development not harmful to the parks could take place in these buffer areas. But the new public units would be called recreation areas or preserves, or given other classifications that would allow for activities that would be unsuitable in areas designated as national parks.

The fully protected national parks could then continue to play their important role in assuring plant and animal species survival and protection of forests and watersheds and ecosystems while helping provide for the recreational , spiritual, and cultural needs of the people.

One of 20 recommendations, adopted unanimously at this once-every-decade conference, addressed the issue by calling on nations to establish multiple use management areas around parks and nature reserves where sustainable development could be practiced. The recommendation urged governments and development assistance agencies to provide help to local peoples who are put at a disadvantage by the creation or existence of a national park.

The national park managers and advocates asked governments to reduce the pressures on protected areas from activities outside the boundaries, and particularly recommended reconsideration or abandonment of hydropower or other river development projects that would have unacceptable environmental impacts on park areas.

And in the only recommendation addressing a specific region, the conference requested Antarctic Treaty nations to refrain from minerals development in the Antarctic until full consideration has been given to protecting the environment.

As with those adopted at the 1962 world conference in Seattle, and the 1972 conference in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, the recommendations of the Bali conference carry no means of enforcement. But government officials and non-governmental organization leaders at Bali agreed to seek their adoption through executive or legislative actions in their countries, or with the help of organizations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The determination of the 400 participants to build support for national parks resulted in a unanimously adopted ''Bali Declaration'' of fundamental principles and policies. One of its basic points called on governments to provide permanent legislative status for protected areas, thus ''securing their objectives against compromise.''

An added significance of the two-week Bali meeting was the contribution of developing nations, whose park officials produced much of the management expertise and assumed leadership roles in an area previously dominated by the United States.

Making plans for the next meeting ten years hence, conference co-chairman Kenton Miller proposed a goal of ''establishing by 1992 a worldwide network of national parks and protected areas to cover 10 percent of all terrestrial ecological regions.'' The 1992 conference is to be held in South or Central America.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.