The Conservation Maps That Changed the World

We finished a maps database the other month here at the Conservancy. A database? you scoff. But before you click back over to Pinterest or the latest on some celebrities’ non-marriage marriage, consider this:

This database sums up the only comprehensive conservation vision for the United States. And this database changed the way the world does conservation. And now you — and everyone — can explore all these maps, our Conservation Priority Areas database, online at (It’s so cool, maybe even your pinning can wait.)

You can zoom into your neck of the woods (should you live in North America) or anywhere on the continent to see all the places and species we think are significant ecologically. All of the Conservancy’s conservation priority areas and targets are represented — determined by their regional ecological importance. This is work that’s been 30 years in the making, folks.

Conservation wasn’t always done at such scale or with such vision. Back in the good old days (the 1980s and before), we used to go species by threatened or rare species, protecting tiny pockets of their ranges. Conservationists also planned the old-school way, writing on acetate overlays on top of paper maps. Their efforts on the ground were similarly old-school, widely scattered and largely unconnected.

But in the mid-1990s, John Sawhill (then TNC president) and Steve McCormick of the Conservancy (who succeeded Sawhill) led a vast change — to do conservation work at a much bigger scale, based on areas we called “ecoregions.” The Conservancy expanded our goal to “safeguard a suite of intact sites that collectively represented a full microcosm of ecoregional biodiversity,” says Craig Groves, director of the Conservancy’s measures team and a veteran who was with TNC from the birth of ecoregional planning. “McCormick called the resulting maps our blueprints for successful conservation.”

Those maps turned out to be more influential and more widely adapted than anyone at the Conservancy could have imagined. “Our conservation planning approach has been replicated around the world — by global, regional and local conservation entities,” says Robin Cox, associate director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in California.

And they continue to have great influence, adds Groves. “They provide a conservation vision for the United States,” he says. “For example, the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System are both considering ideas for expansion. Having this sort of data available provides these and other state and federal agencies as well as NGOs some critical information on where there are important conservation gaps they could consider filling.” In addition, industry and business can use the maps to avoid or minimize degradation of ecological priority areas.

We’re proud of our Conservation Priority Areas database, and think you’ll have fun diving into it. Check it out at and let us know what you think.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Much credit to the many hundreds of conservation practioners and experts in TNC, Natural Heritage Programs, and other partners who worked on the individual Ecoregional teams.

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