Do you dream of wandering pristine corners of the earth or exploring far off exotic lands? I have good news: such places still exist in 2016!
While environmental degradation, loss of natural resources, and destructive urbanization dominate the news, vast swaths of land are in fact protected and remain unspoiled. Every nation has some protected area, totaling approximately 15.4% of global land and 3.4% of oceans. More is being protected each day, particularly that which has biodiversity or ecosystem value.
The United Nations recently relaunched the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) at ProtectedPlanet.com, where anyone can discover and view detailed maps of protected terrestrial and marine areas. The hard work and commitment of conservationists, organizations, and governments has ensured a healthy environment to sustain and delight current and future generations. I feel grateful to have witnessed extraordinary spots around the world—and here are sixteen for 2016!
The Coast, California
My childhood was defined by the California coastline, which only exists because of the work of the California Coastal Commission to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the state's 1,100 miles of coast since 1972.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Can a natural place really live up to international megafame? In the case of the Grand Canyon, absolutely. Close to five million people visit the National Park each year.
Unnamed Tropical Islands, Jamaica
There’s no feeling quite like that of boating up to a tiny Caribbean island and imagining you are the first to ever set foot on the glorified sandbar. Various local and regional land trusts fight development and resource exploitation.
Have you ever heard of a mogote (mo-go-tay)? Rare geological phenomenon have resulted in rounded, limestone-composed hills rising vertically from flat plains. The famed landscape of the Viñales Valley is a UNESCO site, as well as a National Park.
Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombia
Just outside of Colombia’s bustling capital of Bogotá lies the largest paramo ecosystem in the world, an evolutionary and biodiversity hotspot and national park since 1977.
Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
The southernmost tip of South America boasts untouched wilderness and stunning, dramatic landscapes—but the region is threatened by mining, overgrazing, and megadams. Millions of acres have been purchased and protected in an effort to create new national parks through organizations like Conservacion Patagonica, led by late environmentalist Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face and Esprit, and his wife, Kris.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Plant and animal life are abundant on the peninsula, like all throughout the environmentally-progressive county (where 28% of land is protected!). Much of the peninsula’s expansive coastlines, spring and river systems, and caves are natural reserves, wildlife refuges, and protected zones, including the oldest in the country.
The largest non-polar desert on earth stretches the full width of Northern Africa—and is majestic. Wind and negligible rainfall yield a multitude of unusual desert formations rising up alongside sand dunes and fields, dry valleys and lakes, and stone plateaus.
Great Rift Valley, Kenya
Running thousands of kilometers, the landscape has been shaped by tectonic and volcanic activity. It is home to the Kenya Lake System, Masaii Mara ecosystems, famed mountains formed during its creation 3 million years ago, and fossils of “Lucy” and 10-million-year-old apes that have yielded groundbreaking evolutionary discoveries.
Negev Desert, Israel
Ibex have been roaming the steep mountains and desert cliffs of southern Israel since biblical days, but are now endangered, like 57% of the country’s 104 mammal species. Open spaces and ecological corridors are thus a national imperative, preserved and managed by the Nature and Parks Authority.
Conserving a pristine environment is a priority of the Himalayan kingdom and pillar of its Gross National Happiness philosophy. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries (leopards, tigers, elephants!) make up a five-million-acre network of protected land in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, accounting for nearly 60% of the country, the highest percentage in Asia.
Coral Reef, Maldives
There are few things as spectacular as colorful coral reefs—and the Maldives have 1,192 coral islands. As ocean acidification and rising water temperatures threaten these underwater wonders and abundant marine life, the EPA has protected the environmentally-sensitive areas.
Thai Highlands, Thailand
Wide-ranging elevation, steep hillsides, basins, gorges, creeks, and rivers mark the country's most heavily forested region, which is linked to similar rolling ranges in neighboring Myanmar and Laos (the three countries and two rivers meet at the Golden Triangle). There are dozens of “forest parks,” protected ares of natural value that are too small to be declared national parks.
The Sky, Norway
A natural, neon light show in the sky… just imagine! Best seen in Northern Norway around the magnetic north pole, the aurora borealis is among the most visually stunning works of Mother Nature. Norway does much to safeguard polar regions and all habitats.
Temperate Rainforests, New Zealand
Did you even know that there are rainforests in the home of the Kiwis and All Blacks? With species dating back millions of years, conservationists have fought hard to preserve precious rainforests on both the north and south islands, amid an extensive network of fourteen national parks.
One of the most biodiverse nations on earth, the land down under is home to many species of flora and fauna found only on that landmass, with 24,000 species of plants alone. Conservation is paramount and the government puts forth clear environmental targets, detailed strategies, long-term planning, hands-on programs, effective monitoring, and successful legislation for mitigation and protection.
Erin Schrode is a green girl and ecopreneur. As the “face of the new green generation,” the co-founder of Turning Green promotes global sustainability, youth leadership, environmental education, and conscious lifestyle choices. An award-winning orator and media personality, Erin has contributed to Fusion, speaks internationally, and consults with corporations and organizations on millennials, sustainability, and social good.