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 Conservation Resource Allocation

We have developed a new approach for allocating funds between priority regions for conservation. This approach provides resource allocation schedules that achieve the biggest ‘bang for a conservation buck’ and improves existing approaches by accounting for diminishing returns on conservation investments, and the dynamic nature of landscapes. It can be applied at any spatial scale and to any number of priority regions. The first application of the approach published in the March 16th edition of Nature was to a subset of ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in Southeast Asia, where the prioritisation of funds for acquiring new reserves was considered (Wilson et al. 2006).
Land acquisition is only one of a number of actions that can be taken to protect biodiversity, and in many circumstances is neither feasible nor appropriate. In ongoing research for The Nature Conservancy, we have introduced ecoregion-specific actions, where we determine the primary threats to biodiversity in each ecoregion and assign a conservation action to abate each threat. We then prioritise the different actions in each ecoregion. The consideration of ecoactions extends the resource allocation approach by accounting for (1) multiple sources of threat (such as urbanisation, conversion to agriculture, and invasive species), (2) a range of conservation actions to abate these threats (such as control of feral predators, invasive plant control, revegetation, reservation, or fire management), and (3) the associated costs and benefits of each conservation action to specific elements of biodiversity. We are applying this approach to 17 of the 39 mediterranean ecoregions identified by the World Wildlife Fund. In other research for The Nature Conservation we are applying the approach to all 39 mediterranean ecoregions and are incorporating considerations of complementarity between sites in their species composition. We are also undertaking a fine scale analysis using this approach for the Californian ecoregions, where we are identifying the actual parcels of land for conservation action.
As part of ongoing research for Conservation International, we are applying our resource allocation approach to the 34 biodiversity hotspots and 5 high-biodiversity wilderness areas, in order to optimally allocate $150 million of Critical Environmental Partnership Funds.
Michael Bode, Marissa McBride, Hugh Possingham, Kerrie Wilson
The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Belinda Reyers (CSIR), Pablo Marquet (Catholic University, Chile), Grant Wardell-Johnson (UQ), Sandy Andelman (CI), Phil Rundel (University of California – LA).
Key references
Wilson, K. A., M. McBride, M. Bode, and H. P. Possingham. 2006. Prioritising global conservation efforts. Nature 440:337-340. email for pdf
Possingham, H., and K. Wilson. 2005. Biodiversity - Turning up the heat on hotspots. Nature 436:919-920. email for pdf
Links and Downloads
This research has received the following media coverage:
Faculty of 1000 review
Faculty Member Comments Peter Kareiva
The Nature Conservancy, United States of America
ECOLOGY, Evaluated 17 Mar 2006
Tech Advance: Finally, someone wrote a paper that provides a rigorous scientific approach to allocating resources among conservation priorities. Previous lists of biodiversity hotspots, global 200 regions, important bird areas, and so on are really no more than beauty lists. Wilson and her colleagues illustrate an elegant and compelling framework for getting the most biodiversity for every dollar spent using data that are increasingly available and credible on a global scale. If conservation organizations and global multilateral institutions are really serious about wise investments (as opposed to marketing), then they have a responsibility to begin applying the decision-theoretic approaches developed in this paper. Admittedly, the paper is still a bit of a 'toy example', but the theory and methods are clearly sufficient to support a serious global application. If only some conservation organization would rise to the challenge.
TNC Monthly Science Chronicles, by Jon Hoekstra
On the cutting edge…

Efforts to maximize return on investment are not new in conservation. With limited resources and seemingly limitless challenges, conservationists have always had to be efficient. However, lacking rigorous methods for objectively evaluating and optimizing conservation return on investment, we have had to settle for using professional intuition and simple heuristics to determine which actions would yield more "bang for the buck" while appropriately managing risk and uncertainty. New research by Hugh Possingham, Kerrie Wilson and colleagues at the University of Queensland promises to change all of this.

In a forthcoming paper in Nature, Wilson et al. determine the optimal allocation of conservation resources across 5 priority regions in Southeast Asia to maximize biodiversity protection in the face of ongoing habitat loss and with explicit consideration of the cost of conservation. They formulate the problem on a species-area curve, asserting conservation "return" to be a function of area protected. The conservation gains to be made in each region depend on the total species richness (here just endemic birds), the area already protected, the rate of loss of remaining habitat, and the cost per hectare of new protection. Their analysis prioritizes Sulawesi for immediate conservation investment, followed by a mix of investments in Sumatra, Borneo and Java/Bali. These conclusions are different than those that would be drawn from simple ranking methods, and also more textured insofar as they address both spatial and temporal variation in prioritization.

Wilson et al. have dramatically accelerated the science of conservation decision-making by validating a formal decision-theoretic framework for optimizing conservation return on investment, and demonstrating that two simple heuristics -- maximizing short-term gains and minimizing short-term losses -- successfully identify near-optimal solutions. They are already elaborating the theory in order to allow for investment choices among different conservation actions as well as different conservation areas, and to account more explicitly for uncertainty and risk. Furthermore, they are collaborating with TNC to prioritize among the 39 ecoregions of the Mediterranean major habitat type as a case study of how the framework can be applied to inform decision-making both across and within ecoregions.

This research has exciting implications for TNC's 2015 Goal and our conservation work. By providing an objective method for identifying conservation resource allocations that maximize conservation gains and minimize biodiversity losses, it can help us move past simplistic rankings of what is most "significant" or "urgent" to develop an organizational portfolio of conservation places and actions that generates the best possible return toward our mission. As an initial step toward moving the theory from the blackboard into the boardroom we will extend the Mediterranean case study by using the global assessment data in this new framework to explore optimal allocations of ecoregion goals for achieving the 2015 Goal for other major habitat types.