Where do you do conservation, how do you do it, and what do you need to get there? They’re simple questions, but conservation planners know that the answers are anything but simple.
A new book by Conservancy scientists Eddie Game and Craig Groves will help conservation planners answer those questions. In Conservation Planning: Informed Decisions for a Healthier Planet, Game and Groves give conservation planners the tools they need to combine the where and how of conservation into a single approach.
Game, the Conservancy’s lead scientist for the Asia Pacific region, has worked on conservation projects in more than 15 countries, applying innovative methods and analyses to community protected areas in the Solomon Islands, grazing management in northern Kenya, and catchment restoration in Colombia. He is also author of the manual for Marxan, the world’s most widely used conservation planning software, and the Editor in Chief of a leading conservation journal, Conservation Letters.
Groves is the executive director for the Science for and Nature and People partnership (SNAP), which funds and facilitates multi-disciplinary working groups to address conservation problems at the intersection of nature conservation, economic development, and human well-being. Prior to SNAP, Craig directed the Conservancy’s efforts to improve conservation planning and monitoring methods, tools, and applications. He is also the author of the highly regarded book Drafting a Conservation Blueprint.
I sat down with Groves to get his thoughts on wicked problems, what biodiversity really means, and the perils of too much data.
Q: You talk about “wicked problems” in conservation planning. What are those?
The most pressing conservation issues today really consist of a lot of inter-related problems that have social, economical, and ecological dimensions to them — making them difficult to solve and what we call wicked problems. So naturally most conservation planning today is not just about conserving nature or biodiversity. It’s also about trying to achieve other objectives at the same time. You can’t just focus on the nature conservation part exclusive of other aspects of the problem.
A good example of a wicked problem would be a REDD+ project in Berau, Indonesia. The Indonesian government is trying to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, but they’re also trying to conserve biodiversity, improve protected areas, sequester carbon, increase employment opportunities for local people, and reduce poverty. Right away you can see that you’re trying to achieve an awful lot of different things, and there are going to be trade-offs between them. The Conservancy and one of our SNAP working groups are developing tools to help answers some of those questions and untangle the various objectives.
Q: It seems like we need more than traditional conservation expertise to solve wicked problems.
Absolutely. These big conservation initiatives will require expertise from the social sciences, economic sciences, political sciences, and the ecological sciences. If you look at conservation planning teams 20 years ago they mostly consisted of people with ecological backgrounds. For most of our big conservation challenges today that’s not adequate.
Q: How else have things changed in the decade since you wrote your first book, Drafting A Conservation Blueprint?
Back then, the emphasis in conservation planning was addressing the question of: “Where are the most important places to focus conservation attention?” My first book sought to answer that question. The second big question is: “How do you actually get conservation done in these places?”
Eddie Game and I want to address the two questions together, combining how do you get conservation done with where is it most effective at the same time. That’s because what you are doing and where you are doing it have huge implications on the amount of money that ends up being spent on conservation. You can really only prioritize actions, because that is where money and staff resources really get decided.
Q: Decision science plays a big role in this book. Tell me more.
A big part of decision science is thinking through different possible solutions to a problem, and it can help us make better decisions in conservation projects. A great example is how President Barack Obama and his team went about tracking down Osama Bin Laden. If you read the backstory, they evaluated all sorts of scenarios and really looked hard at the probability of success of different ways to go after him. That’s an example of good decision science, and we’re trying to do the same thing in conservation.
Q: Is decision science something new for conservationists?
Decision science itself is not new, but conservationists are starting to employ decision science in their work more and more in the past decade due to the influence of people like Eddie, Hugh Possingham, and many others. That’s the skill that Eddie has brought to both this book and to conservation planning in general — he’s had a huge influence on the field. We hope this book will make decision science more accessible to conservation planners and help them make the best possible decisions.
Q: Why do we need to think creatively about data?
We look at data differently today than we did 20 years ago. A colleague of ours from Australia, Hedley Grantham, studied how different amounts of biodiversity data impact conservation decisions. Would more data help you do a better job of identifying protected areas? And the answer is not really. If you have almost no information, then bringing in more data has a huge impact on your ability to make decisions. But there are diminishing returns, a lot more data doesn’t necessarily improve your decision making. And this is probably true in a lot of situations.
Another way we need to think differently about data is in how we collect it. Because of all the different types of data needed for many of today’s conservation projects, we need to be more creative. For example, many conservation projects often lack a lot of social data, like on how a particular conservation action might impact people’s livelihoods. Something really creative that Eddie has done is using cell phones to do social surveys. Particularly in rural developing nations, that’s a really creative way to gather social and economic data relative to livelihoods that wasn’t previously available.
Q: How does good evidence fit into conservation planning?
One major advance in the new version of the Conservancy’s Conservation By Design is placing a lot more emphasis on the evidence that a particular strategy is going to work. In the book we use the example of community-based natural resource management in Papua New Guinea.
Conservancy planners analyzed every step in the conservation plan, forcing themselves to examine what assumptions they were making about each step and how much evidence they had that any particular action would actually work. In this case, they have strong evidence that Madang Province is experiencing high rates of deforestation. But they are less certain that cooperatives in local communities can provide enough income to help them manage conservation areas. Doing this analysis helped them identify risks and have more confidence their actions.
Q: A lot of conservation focuses on protecting biodiversity. What does that term really mean?
When you say the word “biodiversity,” not everyone is going to interpret that word in the same way. To a lot of people biodiversity means places where there are huge numbers of native species. To other people, biodiversity means all of the ecological communities and ecosystems in a place, or to another person it means ecological processes. So when you are designing a conservation project you can’t really just say that biodiversity is your goal. If you’re not specific about the objective you will be really challenged to come up with the right solution.
Q: How does your work with SNAP fit into everything?
SNAP is focused on conservation challenges at the interface of nature conservation, human well-being, and economic development. SNAP is a collaboration between the Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Our multi-disciplinary working groups are taking a new approach to conservation, tackling wicked problems, and creating tools that allow conservationists to solve problems with strong ecological, social and economic angles. We’ve provided many of these tools in our book, and we’ve placed a strong emphasis on addressing the whole social-ecological system in conservation projects, just as SNAP working groups must do.
For example, the SNAP Coastal Defenses working group has quantitatively evaluated the ability of marshes, seagrass, and coral reefs to dampen the effects of sea level rise and storm events. They show that there are real positive effects that are just as cost effective as hard infrastructure that we might build along the coastline. And in many cases it’s more effective to leave nature in place.
Q: How does framing conservation as “for nature and people” influence planning?
The candid bottom line is that it makes conservation and planning a lot more complicated than it used to be. There was a simplistic elegance to some of the first conservation plans that the Conservancy was involved in: we would narrow in on a group of species or a community, figure out what was threatening them, and design a strategy to deal with that threat.
I’m being overly simplistic, but the point is that for many of our large-scale initiatives the social side of the equation is pretty complicated and we need to give as much or more thought to it as we do to the ecological side. Which stakeholders matter? What do they care about? How are we going to try and meet their needs at the same time as we try to achieve conservation? And what is it about conservation that they care about? When you bring in different concerns from different people, it’s definitely going to complicate the overall conservation thinking. But appropriately so.