Leading scientists design new framework for biodiversity conservation

July 14, 2004

A new study published in the August issue of the journal Ecology Letters shows that elaborate modeling efforts used to guide land conservation result in plans that are rarely achievable in the real world--and may actually be counter-productive to achieving long term protection of plants and animals.

"Conservation agencies are spending ten's of millions of dollars on systematic planning, but it doesn't translate to saving wildlife," says author Sandy Andelman, Deputy Director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis where the study was conducted. "We need to reallocate dollars spent on 'perfect world' planning scenarios to aggressively pursue opportunities to safeguard habitat for species that are most in need."

Creating networks of parks and protected areas is a cornerstone of global conservation strategies. Yet 40% of highly threatened vertebrates - mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles - do not occur in a single protected area around the globe.

Wanting to reverse the rapid decline of species, both public and private conservation groups - from the Park Service to The Nature Conservancy - face a constant dilemma of when, where, and how to invest limited funds to maximize conservation benefits. In attempts to have a scientific foundation for these decisions, policy makers have invested in complex processes to design blueprints for the optimal configuration of protected area networks.

Ironically, the authors of the new study - leading mathematicians and conservation planners - are the very people who have been at the forefront of these modeling efforts. Frustrated with continued species loss, they took a step back to figure out how to improve the system. Surprisingly they found that an opportunistic approach - informed by basic scientific information about the abundance and distribution of plants and animals, but heavily focused on how landowners make decisions - will have a better shot at protecting biodiversity over time.

"If it is possible to conserve exactly the sites you want - and do it immediately - a conservation blueprint makes sense," says Andelman. "In marine environments, where there is public ownership, this may be possible, but this situation is rare on land. Conservation has to be staged over time, and it is difficult to predict when and where you will have willing sellers."

"For the last 20 years we thought we needed to be more systematic and we became really good at identifying priority areas for protection without taking into account opportunities in the real world - the rise and fall of property values and who might be influenced to sell," says coauthor Hugh Possingham of Queensland University, a leading conservation biologist and mathematician. "We've taken a passive theoretical approach instead of getting out there and actively seizing opportunities."

The scientists now call for a new approach to conservation - one designed more like a dynamic business plan than a static scientific assessment. Their study provides a new framework for estimating the benefits of paying a premium to acquire important sites for biodiversity -and emphasizes the importance of being opportunistic and acting fast.

"This approach would allow conservation agencies to move quickly and effectively to protect habitat," says Possingham. "Redirecting funds could help managers offer financial or other incentives to land owners, helping turn years of planning into actual protection for species that are running out of time."

The authors state that their results do not diminish the need for accurate information on the distribution of plants and animals and the activities that threaten their survival.

"Just like any business plan, we need the best background research we can get - in this case the basic ecological data about abundance and distribution of plants and animals that is still sparse - but it needs to be melded with a better understanding of changing market dynamics and landowner's choices," says Possingham.

"Developers and industry do a far better job of predicting land availability and creating investment opportunities than do conservationists," says Andelman. "Right now conservation planners aren't even using realistic data for the cost of land."

Andelmen and Possingham are now leading the charge to revamp this static approach. They are developing new collaborations with economists to incorporate market uncertainty and bet-hedging strategies - methods routinely used by investment bankers and stock brokers - into conservation plans.

"It goes beyond conservation science to human psychology - figuring out how we can get the pieces of land with the biggest conservation impact. It requires data conservationists have not historically collected: property values and understanding what will motivate a landowner to sell, and it changes the places that become priorities. In an ever changing world, this will have a better success rate in helping the 40% of threatened vertebrates that have no habitat protection."

"For 20 years the theory of conservation planning proceeded on the assumption that the world is static," says Possingham. "Assuming the world is static, economically and ecologically, is absurd. This paper ushers in a new era of conservation planning theory and practice that can account for uncertainty and dynamics in the real world."
-end-
For additional information and a copy of the paper go to: www.nceas.ucsb.edu/collab/2135

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