In Spain, a territory can be declared «protected area» when it possesses elements and natural systems which are representative, remarkable, fragile, threatened or presenting a particular interest; or when it is specifically dedicated to the protection of biological and geological diversity, and of the natural and cultural resources associated with them.
Each Autonomous Region is in charge for the establishment and management of protected areas on its territory (National Parks are established by the central government upon proposal of the relevant Autonomous Region, which will then be in charge for the management). The main Spanish law on the protection of natural heritage is Law 42/2007, which lists the categories of Spanish protected areas:
The law also integrates norms regarding protected areas established on international basis, such as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, as well as protected areas belonging to the Natura 2000 Network.
The law 5/2007 defines national parks as natural spaces with high ecological and cultural significance and little affected by human activity; the conservation of their particular ecological, aesthetical, cultural, educational and scientific values deserves special attention and is considered a general interest of the state. Together with a National Park, a "peripheral protection zone" is established, bordering the territory of the park, in order to convey its values to the surrounding areas and to cushion the ecological impact from the outside on the park's territory.
Spain was one of the first European countries to establish National Parks (in 1918 Montaña de Covadonga National Park and Ordesa National Park were established). Currently, the "Red de Parques Nacionales" (network of national parks) consisting of 14 areas, represents an integrated protection and management system for the most important places of the Spanish natural heritage.
Both the size and the number of established protected areas have considerably increased in the last years, for a total of about four million hectares distributed in more than 700 protected areas.