published on 8 April 2011 in ecosystems

Protected areas

Taking a look at the past
Protecting nature, at least as a general concept, has rather old origins; in fact it is quite some time that our species has discovered that  it has a negative impact on the environment.  The consequences on the environment, provoked by some human activities, as for example deforesting, were known since the times of Ancient Greece.
The problem is that for centuries the only criterion that humanity has used in its relations with nature, was of a  utilitarian type.  Plants and animals were not considered for what they were, i.e. living organisms, but solely as  elements that were necessary for survival. In fact, up to only a few hundreds of years ago, survival was man’s principal problem, and therefore certain attitudes were fully comprehensible
During the Middle Ages, some of the initiatives that were carried out, when considered  superficially, could be interpreted  as attempts to protect nature. These however were cases of undue appropriation of land or waters, in which  social minorities, which held the power,  seized the natural riches, to the detriment of the poorer population. The reason that  urged the powerful groups to act in this way  therefore, was not the need to enforce  respect of the natural resources, but on the contrary, to prevent access of the same to others, so that they could dispose of goods and services provided by the environment on an exclusive basis.
The real movement to protect nature, thus had to wait for many more years  before it was transformed into a modern principle of civilization and democracy.

Protecting nature as a social value
The first efforts to preserve animal species in the 19th century, were generally based  on the same objectives as the undue appropriation of the rich classes in the Middle Ages. Also in this case the real scope was to draw freely from the resources of nature without having the problem of sharing this privilege with others. This can be seen from the fact that the first protected areas created by the nobles in Northern Europe were nothing else but hunting reserves where it was possible to kill game for  meat, trophies,  skins and ivory, or even as a simple “pastime”.
However, closer to modern days we see that the protection of nature has a very different meaning, more specifically, its meaning now is actually the opposite of the faraway past. At present it is based on the presupposition that the natural heritage that evolved in hundreds of millions of years, is a universal asset, and as such it belongs to all. Therefore it may be exploited  in an equal and well regulated manner, so that every citizen may draw the necessary advantages and  no one may take advantage to the detriment of the others. Protection of nature, in a certain sense, has become a social value.
This new conception  has found difficulty in becoming well-established, and even today it surely cannot be said that it has been completely accepted. In fact the benefits that derive from the use of the natural resources are not equally subdivided among the populations of the world – for example the rich countries use much larger quantities of  natural resources than the so-called developing countries.
At the end of the 19th century, however, in many countries the need to  protect nature  arose, because man’s activities, specially industrial development and agriculture, were leading to the risk of damaging it irreversibly. In fact it was noted that the best way to guarantee continuity to the biological cycles of the animal and vegetable species, was to abolish, or however to drastically limit, human activities in the areas where there was a great wealth of biodiversity.
And so, in the United Stated the first national park in history was born : the famous Yellowstone Park.
In Italy the first protected areas date back to the 1920s, and are called Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso and Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo. To complete the series of so-called “historical parks” in Italy, there are  the Parco Nazionale del Circeo, Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio and Parco Nazionale della Calabria; all the other parks were created later.

Protected areas according to IUCN
Today, the protected areas are formally defined as “areas of land and/or sea, especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity and of natural and  associated cultural resources”.
According to the  classification of  the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  which is the most important organization worldwide for the protection of natural territories, six different standard-types of protected areas have been classified,  reflecting different levels of exposure to human disturbance.
The  areas are defined as follows:

  • Strict Nature Reserve / Wilderness Area
  • National Park
  • Natural Monument
  • Habitat / Species management
  • Protected Landscape / Seascape
  • Managed Resource Protected Area

Let us see what these definitions mean, more precisely.

Strict Nature Reserve/Wilderness Area
These are territories in which all the species and all the resources are protected rigorously. The aim is to prevent any possible interference by man, by prohibiting any type of activity. The scope of these areas, in fact, is to integrally preserve the biodiversity of life therein, guaranteeing total isolation from the industrial and anthropic areas. These areas are open air ecology laboratories, where the only activity that is permitted, on receipt of a specific authorization, is to carry out scientific studies of the natural processes.
National Park
These are the better known protected areas. Generally, in the national parks  activities that are based on the use of resources are not admitted,  and any initiative that is potentially harmful to the environment must be carefully authorized, planned and checked. National parks extend across very vast areas and often include habitats that are quite different and interesting. For this reason, among their peculiarities there is that of their being the favourite destination of naturalistic excursions of a number of school and university students. On the other hand, a heritage of such a great scientific importance, besides its aesthetical value, surely is worth visiting.
Natural Monument
In this case we are dealing with rather small areas, where it is however necessary to establish a protective regimen due to the presence of biological and/or geological formations of particular interest, or historical and artistic findings of a great cultural value.
Habitat/Species management
These are areas whose significance is more or less similar to the strict nature reserves. The difference lies in the fact that here  initiatives involving the conservation of the natural environment, such as some sylvicultural practices, the management of problematic species, and few other activities are tolerated. Furthermore, in the reserves of this type, some activities with a low environmental impact, may be authorized.
Protected Landscape/Seascape
In these landscapes and seascapes, human activities are limited in a flexible manner. In fact, in this type of protected area almost all activities tied to local traditions are permitted, so long as they are characterized by a modulated use of the natural resources. Often these localities offer good opportunities for non aggressive tourism and recreational activities that are compatible with the environment. Typical examples of this category are the areas inhabited by small communities  whose economy is based on fishing, local agriculture and ecotourism.
Managed Resource Protected Area
This definition is used to indicate natural areas that are widespread, in which the use and non-use of the resources is balanced in favour of the former. In other words the concept of a controlled exploitation of nature is preferred to a strictly rigid protection. Therefore these are areas with a relevant biodiversity where, however, it is possible to carry out a sustainable extraction of raw materials of a biological and abiological origin, so long as these activities are carried out in full respect of the times and methods conditioned by there spontaneous renewal.

Protection in Italy
The above classification  is recognized on an international scale as the foundation  for the institution of protected areas.  However this outline is not always applied to the letter, because the territory, the culture, the administrative systems and economic activities of the various nations world-wide are extremely different. Consequently when the decision is taken in a country to subject a part of the natural territory to some form of protection, the IUCN classification is used as a general criterion to which the necessary modifications are applied so as to comply with the administrative system of that country. The important aspect is that a law must be issued in which the protective regulations that best respond to this need are defined in compliance with the contemplated international requirements of nature protection.
In Italy there are a number of different laws on nature protection, however the most important is Law 394 dated 1991, in which the protected areas are subdivided into seven types instead of six. Furthermore, as indicated hereunder, these typologies imply laws that are slightly different to those contained in the outline set by IUCN.
protected areas,  have been notified officially to the Italian Ministry of the Environment. Hereunder is their definition, accompanied by the number of each indicated in brackets:

  • National parks (24)
  • State-owned natural reserves (147)
  • State-owned marine reserves  (30)
  • Regional natural parks  (151)
  • Regional natural reserves  (419)
  • Other protected areas  (576)

Nature protectyed with a network
Once again, a  historical type of specification is indispensable.  When speaking of protected areas, the evolution of their meaning must be considered.
The concept of protection implies the protection of the natural heritage from excessive exploitation by man. However, according to the most widespread opinion, up to the Nineties, in order to reach this aim  it was necessary to isolate, as far as possible, all what was within the natural environments from what was outside. This was certainly a way of guaranteeing nature protection, and some good results were obtained, and these were suitable up to a few decades ago. However, today this method has become outdated.
At present the idea prevails that in order to truly protect nature there must also be a contemporary systemic vision of the environment. But what do we mean by a “systemic” vision?
In practice, it is believed that the protected areas do not have to be seen as “islands” of territory separated from the rest of the environment, but rather as the “nodes” of a biological network in which the various parts are constantly in relation. In other words, these areas must  be connected reciprocally so as to facilitate the dispersion of biological species from one part to the other. And to do this it is necessary to give greater value to the environments that can have the function of “corridors” between a protected area and another. The nodes of a net are a very good example of this idea.
Advanced knowledge in natural science confirms the correctness of this new approach to nature protection, as it has been proved that in preventing animals and plants from moving to new environments there is the risk of provoking a decrease in their numbers, that may even lead to their extinction.
Many species that live within protected areas, specially if their numbers are limited, encounter great difficulties in reproducing successfully if they do not have the possibility of migrating. Others are unable to feed if they cannot leave their residential area and return there continually.
All this has induced experts in many countries to join together to elaborate a European project known as  Natura 2000 network. The endpoint of this project is to study a series of connecting environments between the protected areas of the continent, that can offer the more mobile organisms (usually animals) the opportunity to move, depending on their biological characteristics. Biodiversity may thus be distributed over more extended areas of the territory, instead of being concentrated in a few sites.
The protected areas would remain the points of reference for actions to protect biodiversity, as has been the situation to date. But the general situation of nature would  improve considerably because it would be a bit like having a single large protected area that extends as a “net” across the whole of Europe.

Written by Carlo Modonesi

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