The Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction in the boundaries of protected land in US history according to a new study.
The study, one of the most comprehensive to date, was published Friday in the journal Science.
The study noted that in 2017, the Trump administration enacted two of the largest downsizes of protected lands in US history; Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah lost 51% of its protected land and Bears Ears lost 85%. With those actions, land twice the size of Rhode Island came out of protection.
The changes enabled mining and oil and gas development, the study said. These decisions are currently under litigation, according to the study, but the US government has identified nine other National Monuments in the United States for downgrading or downsizing.
“The Bureau of Land Management has not seen the study and cannot comment on its specific conclusions regarding biodiversity or boundary modifications,” according to a statement from US Department of the Interior spokeswoman Molly Block. “The BLM manages the lands within and modified from the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monument boundaries according to laws, policies, and regulations that specifically protect cultural and natural resources.”
Land protection rollbacks worldwide
Researchers also identified an “alarming” acceleration in efforts to roll back laws that were meant to protect land and water, not just in the United States, but all around the world.
Across the globe, there have been at least 3,700 rollbacks of laws that protected natural land across more than 3,000 areas, some of which had been protected since 1872, the study found. That removes 519,857 square kilometers (more than 200,000 square miles) of protected lands around the globe.
The study found 78% of the rollbacks happened in the last eight years. In the United States, 90% occurred since 2000. In Brazil, 84% took place since then.
Most of these laws have been rolled back to allow the search for and acquisition of energy sources like coal, natural gas and other natural resources. Other protected areas fell out of protection for land development.
“What this shows is that the work doesn’t end when you set aside land to be protected,” said Mike Mascia, the senior vice president at Conservation International. “We have to double our efforts to ensure the success with a proper investment in protection, making sure these legal protections stay in place and that effort continues on all fronts.”
Can species survive the loss of land?
Joseph Wilson, who did not work on this latest study, but researches wildlife, focusing on bees, in Utah’s Grand-Staircase, said the study “rings true” from what he has seen working on the ground.
“It was nice to have a paper actually quantify the loss and to have a better sense of why it is happening,” Wilson said.
Wilson said protecting these lands is key for species to survive.
“I heard a commissioner say that only 10% of the land at Grand-Staircase has any scenic value, to them 90% of this was worthless, but that underestimates the importance of biodiversity here and we can assume that things that cause a lot of disturbance to the area will have negative consequences,” Wilson said.
Grand-Staircase is home to the majority of the state’s flowering plant diversity and those flowers attract nearly 700 bee species. There are 750 species total east of the Mississippi, he said. The Trump administration rollback in protection doesn’t merely shrink the habitat; it also changes the land that’s protected.
For instance, he said, the law that regulates the protected part of Grand-Staircase specified there should be no paved roads. Wilson and his colleagues have been concerned that the Trump rollbacks could bring paved roads to the protected space. Many of the bee species he studies don’t have hives like honeybees, they make holes in the ground. Dirt roads are “prime bee real estate” he said. “They can’t make their homes on paved roads.”
Wilson plans to do more research to see if the bees will adapt, but losing territory will likely have a negative impact on bees survival.
It’s not just the bees these lands and waters protect. “They play such an important role in mitigating climate change, in serving as a protective habitat for animals and birds,” she said Rachel Golden Kroner, the lead author on the study.
And the protection is now more important than ever.
The UN reported in May that human activities were already “ecological foundations of society” and the report predicted at least one million species could go extinct. Not only does that pose a threat to animals it also hurts humans ability to get a steady supply of food.
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The global rate of species extinction “is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years,” according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
“We shouldn’t abandon protection of these lands, we need to do so much more,” Golden Kroner said.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.