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Yosemite NP © Abe Kleinfeld

The concept of a protected area is not a new one, and has evolved over time around the core ideal of protecting important resources and places. Traditional communities have long conserved special places, such as the sacred groves in Africa and Asia (Chandran, 2000) and tapu areas in the Pacific (Eagles, 2002). Over 1,000 years ago in Europe land was often partitioned off for royal hunting reserves. The New Forest national park in the UK was originally set aside to ensure that woodlands and wildlife were protected for use by William The Conqueror in 1079 as a royal hunting area; and was eventually opened up to the local community for recreational use. In 2005 the area was formally designated as a National Park with its primary purpose still being to protect the wildlife and its habitat. The creation of hunting reserves continued into Africa during colonial rule, and some of these areas have since been adapted into community conservation areas and national parks.

History Glacier NP © Ken Lund

The concept was further developed when European settlers arrived in the USA from Europe, and discovered vast areas of unspoilt and untouched wilderness. These areas inspired modern day conservationists, and Yellowstone National Park became the world's first national park in 1872; designated by US Congress law "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" (Eagles, 2002). It now covers 80,937 km2 and is visited by 2 million people a year. Later, following the establishment of Yosemite National Park, John Muir established the Sierra Club in 1982, which was a forum for like-minded people to come together and enjoy the outdoors through recreational pursuits such as walking and climbing; and created the foundation upon which modern environmental campaigning is based.

Over the last century there has been a growing realisation that biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate and that ecosystems and the services they provide are vital for human survival. Natural resources that we have come to rely on and utilise such as fresh water, fuel, food resources, soil and many others are being degraded at an exponential rate. This has lead to the expansion of protected areas to incorporate a wide variety of habitats, and a growing recognition of their importance as a tool for international policy makers. As the human population expands, ever more pressure is placed on the natural world through damaging activities such as deforestation, pollution, poaching, and intensification of agriculture. This has lead to numerous plant and animal species now only being found inside protected areas and nowhere else. Today, some protected areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, still remain and are preserved as true wilderness. For some, such as Dartmoor National Park, the primary purpose is a mixture of both habitat protection and tourism; and these reserves are managed accordingly. As urban development increases, the benefits of spaces that protect biodiversity and the natural environment are becoming realised, with protected areas having a central role in the maintenance of these.

Chandran, M. D. S., Hughes, J. D., (2000) Sacred Groves and Conservation: The Comparative History of Traditional Reserves in the Mediterranean Area and in South India. Environment and History 6(2): 169-186.

Eagles, P. F. J., McCool, S. F., Stephen, F. and Haynes, C. D. A., (2002). Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas: Guidelines for planning and Management. IUCN Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Holdgate, M., (1999). The Green Web - Union for World Conservation. Earthscan, London, UK.