Scott Ford

Protected-Area Dynamics. Patterns, drivers, and environmental outcomes of changes in protected-area boundaries and designations.

Contemporary environmental issues such as global biodiversity loss and climate change have generated the need for effective conservation interventions. Among the most widely implemented of these strategies is the establishment of protected areas. These interventions have achieved relatively widespread support from policy makers, and accordingly have expanded to cover nearly 17% of terrestrial and 8% of national marine areas around the globe. While protected-area coverage seems to have expanded rapidly in recent decades, researchers are now beginning to highlight cases where site protection has been removed. Indeed, it is becoming clear that protected areas are not static elements on the landscape, and in fact their boundaries and designations can change frequently over time. This realization has fostered new questions surrounding the conservation efficacy of protected-area interventions.

This thesis seeks to document the patterns, drivers, and environmental outcomes of recent trends in protected-area dynamics, and presents this work in three original research articles. The first article presents a new approach designed to track changes in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) and employs this approach to identify changes in global protected-area coverage since 2010. The analysis reveals that protected areas are frequently downsized within and removed from the WDPA, indicating that losses in site protection may be more widespread than previously believed. However, the results also suggest that much of the apparent loss in site protection may be related to data quality issues within the WDPA itself, indicating that the use of this data to inform conservation actions and policy must be performed with care. Additionally, further case study research is necessary to better understand the effects of losses in site protection on the ground.

The second article presents a case study of losses in site protection through protected-area downgrading and degazettement in Cambodia. This work reveals that social conditions in Cambodia led to a free-market economic policy shift in the early 1990’s that spurred private investment in agriculture and forestry-based industries. Land within protected sites was granted to investors, and environmental safeguards were circumvented in several cases. Accordingly, losses in site protection in the Cambodian context have significantly increased rates of deforestation and forest fragmentation, and have potentially undermined conservation efforts for dozens of threatened species. 
The final article presented in this thesis assesses the potential impact of increasing site protection, by assessing patterns of deforestation leakage surrounding protected sites in tropical and subtropical forest regions throughout America, Africa, and Asia. The results do indicate that deforestation leakage is more widespread than previously believed, occurring in 46% of studied cases. This indicates a strong need for decision makers to consider the context, and potential for deforestation leakage when designing new site-based conservation interventions.

In documenting the patterns, drivers, and outcomes of protected-area dynamics, this thesis advances our understanding of one of the most important conservation interventions, and provides both researchers and policy makers with useful tools and information to optimize conservation strategies.