There ought to exist an environmental scale in which every parcel of land of any size could be graded on a scale of 1 through 100 in which 1 would be the most natural, anthropogenically untouched environment and 100 would be an environment which is totally polluted, destroyed, and changed by human activities. Larger sections of land with many parcels of different environmental grades lying within it would be graded by taking the weighted average environmental grade of all these parcels to determine the overall grade for that larger section.
Constructing maps showing the environmental grades received by each parcel of land would enable people to quickly assess the degree and spatial distribution of human influences on the natural environment. Governments could set zoning policies defining how far from ‘natural’ lands are permitted to be managed. For example, an entire area dedicated as a Nature Preserve could be prohibited from having an average environmental grade higher than 5 points on this scale, while Nature Conserves could be allowed a deviation of up to 10 points from what would otherwise be the environment in its ‘natural’ state (being defined as a grade of 1 on this scale). The Sarcophagus structure entombing the destroyed Unit 4 nuclear reactor near Chernobyl, Ukraine, would probably qualify as a 100 or very near to it because the area is virtually permanently contaminated with huge amounts of long-lived radioactive pollution, the site also contains almost entirely manmade materials, and it consists of a built up structure whose permeability, albedo, thermal mass, and other qualities are different than what could be expected if that land were to have been left in a purely natural state.
Some anthropogenic influences such as air and light pollution cannot realistically be prevented from crossing the boundaries of any protected area, thus causing a degradation of the protected area, or at least portions of it, and thus causing it to deviate from a purely ‘natural’ grade. Therefore, while all grades should fully reflect all negative human alterations of the natural environment, policy decisions firmly requiring a grade of 1 on this environmental deviation scale may not be the most practical thing to do because of this kind of spillover effect. Rather, it may be better to make policies based upon the ‘natural’ environment plus any ‘unavoidably’ intrusive environmental pollutants.
Alternatively, this spillover effect could be factored into such land grades with just the assumption that these lands are anavoidably altered and affected because of pollution spilling over from adjoining lands.
Using such a grading scale, governments could fairly and meaningfully fine or tax landowners for exceeding the allowable environmental deviation limit by a clear, quantitative amount.
Environmental Preservation & Development Limits
All lands intended for the preservation of the natural environment (against permanent agricultural, residential, commercial or industrial developments) should be given one of the first three classifications that would more clearly indicate their degree of environmental protection: the Preserve, the Conserve or Protected Area, and the Park.
- The Preserve would be the most protective level of classification and would involve the virtual total preservation of the environment, attempting to keep it in its naturally pristine condition. In these Preserves, extremely limited infrastructures would be allowed. This would include no roads, electrical, plumbing, or other utility lines, no maintained clearings for campgrounds, and nothing else that would either aesthetically, physically, or biologically infringe on the natural state of the environment. No more than one-tenth of one percent (.1%) would be allowed to be permanently developed. The only possible exception may be minimally maintained trails and perhaps markers or signs scattered throughout the Preserve to aid people in navigation. Very few people, who have obtained the proper permits and passed educational classes which deal with living in harmony with the environment and the penalties for failing to do so, would be allowed to permanently live in such areas. These people, and perhaps others, may engage in subsistence food gathering and hunting after obtaining the proper educational classes and permits. However, to make such Preserves more visually accessible and enjoyable to the public, perhaps very silent and unobtrusive monorail systems could be built throughout some areas of the Preserve on tall columns so that the whole system would operate with a minimal footprint, minimal noise pollution and minimal tree trimming maintenance requirements. In fact, these monorail systems could be merely part of regular long distance mass transportation networks that travel through such areas without stopping at stations.
- The second level of lands classification is the Conserve or Protected Area. Permitted on lands under this classification would be infrastructures such as campgrounds, bathroom facilities, limited paved roads, electrical, water, and gas lines, maintained hiking trails and bicycle paths, etc. The goal is to conserve as much of the natural environment as possible, while allowing for broad, low-impact human enjoyment. No more than 10% of the total area dedicated as a Conserve should be allowed to be permanently developed.
- Finally, in the third level of classification there would be the Parks that would allow the use of motorized watercrafts, off road motor vehicles, they could offer maintained grassy play areas, paved roads and bike paths, play equipment, and allow the use of other recreational aids and permit virtually any recreational activity.
Adjective words such as Nature, Natural, Historical, Archeological, etc., should be included in the names of protected areas to denote the kinds of lands they are. More descriptive nouns could also be used such as Seashore, Lakeshore, River, Parkway, Trail, Battlefield, Cemetery, Monument, etc.
Archeological or historical human monuments, or Battlefields, etc., which are not natural environments per se, are worthy of similar levels of protection, even up to a Preserve, because they also are intended to be protected from human induced alteration.
The adjectives International, National, State, County, or even City should also be included in the names of each of the relevant protected areas so people know which level of government was responsible for creating it.
Developments and permanent human habitation should be allowed within all environmentally protected lands, though they would be most restrictive for Preserves. However, all such developments must remain within a maximum deviation of ‘natural’ established by the controlling governing authority. For example, if the maximum allowable degree of anthropogenic deviation from the natural environment is 10 points for an entire area dedicated as a Conserve or Protected Area, the weighted average of all establishments and landowners occupying 100% of that Conserve cannot exceed this limit of 10 points.
In other words, even very protected areas could allow small scale residential and commercial developments so long as all forms of pollution including water, noise and light pollution are mitigated to sufficient degrees. Developments should also fully treat all their sewage and not have large impermeably paved areas (roads, parking lots, etc). Such developments should operate in as much of a closed system as possible. Perhaps taxes could be applied based on the degree of deviation from ‘natural’ that each parcel is deemed to be. This should incentivize the management of lands under increasing levels of protected status, thereby more effectively controlling future developments and creating powerful tendencies to reduce negative human influences on the environment.
Preserving Agricultural Land From Residential/Commercial/Industrial Development
Also needed is a mechanism that would facilitate the preservation of agricultural land, which generally has less of a negative environmental footprint than residential, commercial or industrial developments. More levels of land designation should be added to the list of three designations above.
- An Agricultural lands category could be used to describe any lands that are being used as to grow crops for human or animal use. This would include land used to grow seasonal crops or permanent crops such as orchards or vineyards. Meadows and pastures used for anthropogenic activities (such as for grazing domesticated cattle), would also be classified as agricultural.
- Residential lands would be used for residential purposes.
- Commercial lands would be reserved for commercial purposes.
- Industrial lands would be used for industrial purposes.
The general idea is to try to keep as much land as possible classified in the top rankings so as to maintain as much stability as possible in the environment. Since environmental damage occurs with virtually every human interaction with the environment, often contributing to extirpations, extinctions or other longterm alterations which are often not noticed until long after the effects are difficult or impossible to reverse, this policy of attempting to keep as many parcels of land in a state as close to natural as possible, is perhaps the best policy for prevention and conservation of the natural world.