Essay | American conservation is missing the point

Multiple alligators rest in grass beside a small body of water.

(Belle Long/George Washington University)

Americans can rest easy knowing that the valleys of Yellowstone, the coasts of Big Sur, and the peaks of Denali are preserved. However, many don’t realize that the country’s true national treasure –– its biodiversity –– has been largely ignored. 

In 2015, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) unveiled a contradictory pattern of American land protection. Most of the nation’s parks, wildlife refuges, and preserves are not in the regions with the most vulnerable species and richest biodiversity.

According to the PNAS study, the country’s preservation status quo is quite good at protecting panoramic views, but overlooks the most crucial consideration of truly effective conservation: species vulnerability.

A species is the most vulnerable to habitat loss, climate change and disease when it is endemic, or only lives in one geographic area. Of the 1,200 U.S. endemics, the largest concentration is found in the Southeast. Yet when it comes to the distribution of protected land, the Southeast has the least amount of coverage. In fact, the overwhelming majority of America’s preserved lands lie in the West, which has the lowest amount of endemics. 

This mismatch has many causes. Large swaths of the West are unsuitable for agriculture, making it less palatable to farmers and private entities. Because of this, the U.S. government owns around 47% of Western lands. The opposite was true for the South – east of the Mississippi, only 4% of land is publicly owned. The rest is divvied up between millions of private landowners and commercial enterprises, making it much harder for the federal government to step in. 

These historic and economic factors are compounded by cultural attitudes. According to a 2015 study published in Environmental Politics, residents of southern states are less likely to support spending on environmental protection, believe that individual action can affect environmental health, or sacrifice their standard of living in order to protect the environment.

A surprising exception

Only one southern state consistently breaks this pattern – Florida.  

11.4% of Florida’s land is designated for parks and wildlife areas, according to a CLIQ analysis. It is the 7th largest protector of land out of all U.S. states, and the only Southeastern state to rank in the top 15. 

In the Environmental Politics study, Florida was the only state that did not fall in line with its regional neighbors on the questions of efficacy and sacrifice. In another, more recent study on state-level attitudes towards climate change, Florida also stood out regionally. 30% of Floridians consider global warming “extremely important personally”, compared to the South’s overall average of 23%. 

One manifestation of Florida’s outlier status is its above-average state park system. Florida State Parks has won the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration’s highest annual award on four separate occasions, the most of any state. Nicknamed “the Real Florida”, these state parks encompass over 800,000 acres of protected land. 

A sign in a wooded passage reads "Thank you for visiting... the Real Florida. Come back soon!"
All Florida State Parks feature the slogan "The Real Florida." (Belle Long/George Washington University)

Patchwork conservation 

Nearly half of Florida’s state parks has a companion non-profit organization, known as a Citizen Support Organization (CSO) or “Friends” groups. They raise money, coordinate volunteer services and help manage the natural resources of its affiliate park. 

These CSOs are independently managed by volunteers, typically members of the very communities the parks protect. For many locals, CSOs allow them to play an active role in the stewardship of their own backyards. 

“A good way to say it is we speak for the trees,” Barb Hoffman, one such volunteer, said. “I think CSOs, they allow the normal citizen to have a voice and to have a chance to help these places. Keep them intact.” 

Hoffman is the president of the Friends of Anclote Key State Park and Lighthouse, which supports the island preserve on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The park protects highly vulnerable species like the piping plover, whose continued existence largely depends on ongoing conservation efforts, and the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the rarest and most endangered type of sea turtle in the world.

The group oversees the park’s largest fundraising venture. Twice a month, the Anclote Key Lighthouse is opened for climbing. Hoffman and her fellow members coordinate volunteer schedules and recruit local boaters to ferry visitors on and off the island. In return, they ask for a $5 dollar donation. 

In 2021, the Friends of Anclote Key spent over $2,000 on park support. According to Hoffman, that money goes for supplies for the park ranger, maintenance vehicles, and park infrastructure. Eventually, Hoffman dreams of being able to support a dedicated visitor ferry service. 

Three people in wet suits swim around a manatee in a green body of water near a wooded area.
Visitors swim with a manatee at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. (Belle Long/George Washington University)

Some CSOs have amassed even more robust support. The Friends of Paynes Prairie, a CSO affiliated with Paynes Prairie State Park, donated $15,000 to the park in 2021, according to the CSO audit required by the Florida Department of Parks and Recreation. 

The Prairie is an utopia of North Florida biodiversity. It provides crucial habitats for almost 100 endemics, including over 60 reptiles and amphibians, 29 plants, and four birds.

Bubba Scales, a member of the Friends of Paynes Prairie, said the CSO was able to almost entirely cover a $150,000 renovation of the park’s visitor center. 

“Where CSOs exist and do a good job raising money, it makes it a lot easier for the park to acquire resources for management,” Scales said. “Especially when there are things that come up that the park administration knows they’ll have a hard time getting funded.” 

Grassroots power is real, but not enough

This community-style tradition is lacking in the rest of the South. According to available data provided by state park systems, Florida ranks well above its Southern peers when it comes to CSO presence. Florida has 86 such groups while Georgia has 50, Tennessee has 40, Virginia has 34, North Carolina has 28 and Arkansas has 13. 

While the region could certainly benefit from Florida’s model, iron-proof conservation can’t be achieved through grassroots efforts alone. The South’s biodiversity –– and by extension, the entire country’s –– can be saved, but only once it is valued and unilaterally protected in the manner it deserves.

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