private reserves vs national parks

Private Reserves vs. National Parks: Do Both Aid Conservation?

Jane Marsh - April 26, 2018

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The United States pioneered the national park approach to conservation, a method that has become common around the world. So when we pit private reserves vs. national parks, who wins?

It involves closing off certain areas to all private development. The government owns and manages these lands to protect them for future generations. All land outside of these protected areas is open to private development.

There’s a space in between these two extremes though: privately owned reserves. Private individuals or organizations own these areas and choose to protect the natural landscapes within them.

Do national parks and private reserves both contribute to conservation efforts? Is one better than the other? Let’s explore these questions.

The Strengths of Private Reserves

Although private reserves are a relatively new idea in many areas, and it’s difficult to know how many there are in the world, it’s estimated that they cover more than 20 million hectares. Private reserves often provide many of the same ecological benefits that areas protected by the government do, primarily protecting biodiversity and natural landscapes.

Sometimes, private parks work in coordination with public ones. They often border government-protected areas, expanding the square footage of a given habitat that receives protection.

It’s challenging for either government or private entities alone to protect a sufficient amount of land to fully protect a unique ecosystem. In these cases, both private and public protection plays a crucial role. Sometimes, private protection eventually leads to government action. A private individual might step up to protect an area until the government realizes the importance of protecting it or obtains the funding to do so.

The lack of reliance on public funding and political priorities is one of the advantages of private reserves. Government-funded projects can have limited funding, and political entities might not have sufficient incentives to protect an ecosystem.

If an individual or private company owns a piece of land and uses it to benefit financially from ecotourism, they have substantial incentive to preserve it. In strong economic times, private reserves may have more funding than public ones. This enables them to improve their conservation efforts.

This private ownership, proponents argue, gives the power to the people and helps support the local economy. Private reserves can have social and economic benefits as well as environmental ones.

The Weaknesses of Private Reserves

Private ownership, however, can also present challenges under some conditions. In tough economic times, the incomes of these preserves may suffer, putting their conservation efforts in jeopardy.

The owners of these lands might also be tempted, especially during an economic downturn, to prioritize profit over preservation of nature. This decision may lead them to develop parts of the land or interfere with the area’s natural systems. For example, they might bring in non-native species to add to the park’s appeal.

There’s no guarantee that a private area will stay protected. The owners could decide to sell the land or develop it at any point. As it gets passed down through generations, and new leadership takes over organizations, priorities can change as well.

Another challenge is that private reserves are typically small compared to public ones. Often, they’re too small to adequately protect larger animals and prevent habitat fragmentation.

Some of the rules and regulations that apply to government-managed lands don’t cover private reserves. Although animal attacks are extremely rare, lack of knowledge about a specific reserve’s policies might cause increased fear of such an incident occurring. Private landowners might also be more likely to be lenient with guests whose actions disturb the environment or even directly harm wildlife.

The Strengths of National Parks

National parks, on the other hand, are designated as such by law, so they’re less vulnerable to economic fluctuations. If ecotourism loses popularity or people’s disposable incomes decrease, national parks will still exist.

It’s also much harder to develop a national park or sell it off to a private company. Although laws can change, it typically involves a lengthy legislative process that would likely be met with legal challenges.

Publicly protected lands are also governed by stricter regulations, which may make people feel safer when visiting them. Because those managing the land are responsible for reporting to a government agency, they may be more likely to enforce rules designed to ensure that guests stay safe and don’t harm the natural environment during their visit. Private landowners often have no responsibility to enforce such rules.

The Weaknesses of National Parks

It’s no secret, though, that publicly owned aspects are still subject to mismanagement. Although in an ideal world, those who break the rules would be removed from power, this process isn’t always the case.

Although the law mandates the existence of national parks, changes in political leadership and priorities can impact the amount of funding parks get. Substantial budget reductions can cripple parks’ operations. Between 2001 and 2005, for example, budget constraints reduced the amounts of guards in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, which led to a dramatic surge in illegal hunting.

Even in times of relatively high levels of funding, national parks may still fall behind private reserves regarding financial resources and struggle to finance all the work that needs to be done to them.

Political leaders can also take steps to allow more development of publicly protected lands by private entities such as oil and gas companies. Exactly 534 active oil and gas wells currently operate on national park lands in the U.S., and rules giving the National Park Service more control over how oil and gas companies use parklands are now under scrutiny.

A Balanced Approach: Private Reserves vs. National Parks

Private reserves and national parks both have their pros and cons. In some situations, private protection may be the best option while in others, the public approach may be most effective. Because of the limitations of private reserves vs. national parks, the two often need to work together.

Models that work in some places also might not work as well in others due to differences in environmental, societal, political and economic factors. Where demand for land is especially high, researchers have suggested, learning how to live alongside wildlife may work better than dividing the land into distinct areas for preservation and development.

Preserving natural ecosystems is a complex task, and neither system can address all of its challenges perfectly. To ensure that our natural lands and the biodiversity they contain remain protected, we’ll likely need to employ aspects of both the private and public approach.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.