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No Fortuitous Short-Cuts When Deciding Conservation Priorities

The Armsworth Lab has a new open-access publication out in Nature Communications: “Factoring economic costs into conservation planning may not improve agreement over priorities for protection.”  It is a collaboration between an interdisciplinary team of UT researchers with scientists at The Nature Conservancy and focuses on how best to identify candidate areas for establishing nature reserves.

Co-authors include Research Assistant Professor Heather Jackson, former graduate students Gwen Iacona (PhD 2014, now a postdoc at the University of Queensland) and Nate Sutton (MS 2014, now a data scientist for MedAmerica), and former postdoc Eric Larson (now faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

The abstract is pasted below.

Conservation organizations must redouble efforts to protect habitat given continuing biodiversity declines. Prioritization of future areas for protection is hampered by disagreements over what the ecological targets of conservation should be. Here we test the claim that such disagreements will become less important as conservation moves away from prioritizing areas for protection based only on ecological considerations and accounts for varying costs of protection using return-on-investment (ROI) methods. We combine a simulation approach with a case study of forests in the eastern United States, paying particular attention to how covariation between ecological benefits and economic costs influences agreement levels. For many conservation goals, agreement over spatial priorities improves with ROI methods. However, we also show that a reliance on ROI-based prioritization can sometimes exacerbate disagreements over priorities. As such, accounting for costs in conservation planning does not enable society to sidestep careful consideration of the ecological goals of conservation.