Protected areas generate multiple benefits for our society, both for the inhabitants of urban areas and the rural communities that live inside or around them. However, these spaces also face important challenges that must be managed to ensure that they fulfil the purposes for which they were created.
Environmental benefits. Protected areas are essential tools for combating two of the major crises of our time: massive loss of biodiversity and climate change. They maintain the necessary habitats for virtually all of our flora and fauna. They also serve to store CO2 in forests, rangelands, wetlands, the soils of well-managed agricultural and livestock areas or on the seabed. Our protected forests are essential for surface and groundwater generation and storage, while many wetlands serve as natural water purifiers and prevent catastrofic floods.
Economic benefits. The staff and investment associated with managing protected areas is a major source of employment in sparsely populated areas. Similarly, visitors to these sites generate the main income in many rural communities. Protected areas allow the creation of quality brands that increase the commercial value of local products from livestock farming, agriculture, crafts or small industry. Finally, these areas allow many economic activities to be regulated so that they are more appropriate and sustainable in the long term.
Social and cultural benefits. Our protected areas are useful to care for, promote and recover the cultural heritage associated with many rural environments. They are also spaces for enjoyment and recreation for millions of people, as well as encouraging scientific research and education about our natural and cultural heritage.
Health benefits. There is increasing evidence of the positive effect that natural spaces have on human health, especially for people living in urban environments and others recovering from illness. Close contact with nature and physical exercise in open environments away from the big cities are very important sources of physical and psychological well-being.
Lack of appreciation by society. Our protected areas are largely unknown to many Spaniards. The majority of the urban population is unaware of them or takes them for granted, while a large part of the rural population views them with suspicion. The result is that, compared to other countries, there is no sense of pride, belonging and recognition of our vast network of protected areas. While we take pride in our gastronomy, our history and our sportsmen and women, we are hardly aware of the very rich natural and cultural heritage that is cared for and made accessible thanks to these spaces.
Insufficient investment for their proper management. As a result of the above, many protected areas lack adequate staff and means for their management and care. Compared to other environmental issues such as renewable energies or urban ecology, governments allocate hardly any resources to these areas. Similarly, many citizens refuse to pay for the use they make of them, as if they were areas that would take care of themselves. Compared to the donations and investments made in art, culture and health, few Spanish foundations and companies choose to donate funds for the management and care of our protected areas.
Bureaucratisation and abuse of restrictive policies. The lack of means and the internal rules of the administrations can promote an excess of regulations, formalities and administrative obstacles that make it difficult for neighbours and users to take advantage of and enjoy some protected areas, without this having anything to do with preventing concrete and real damage or impacts.
Weakness in the face of external interests that violate environmental norms. In some cases, the activities of powerful economic interests located in the surroundings of protected areas can generate direct impacts on the maintenance of their ecosystems, as is the case with the waters of Tablas de Daimiel, Doñana or the Mar Menor.
Overcrowding and tourist overuse. Many protected areas receive large numbers of visitors concentrated in time and space. This can lead to the deterioration of both the natural environment and the experience of the visitors themselves. This problem is especially complicated when the area lacks the human resources and infrastructure necessary to facilitate and manage these visits.
Catastrophic fires. Fires are a natural part of many of our ecosystems, especially in the Mediterranean area. However, the accumulation of dry biomass due to the lack of herbivores, whether wild or domestic, combined with climate change, causes fires in many of our parks and reserves with abnormally high impacts, both in terms of extension and temperature.