July 30, 2018|By Will Allen and Kent Messer

What is Strategic Conservation?
Strategic Conservation helps communities identify their conservation priorities and goals; recommends high impact, cost effective implementation strategies; and assists communities in building the capacity to fulfill their conservation visions. 

Robin Murphy
: Why is strategic conservation important?

Will Allen: Professionals in the conservation field have limited time, limited financial resources, and limited human capital available to do the work, so it is important to identify the most important resources to protect and do the best work you can with the resources available, so that’s the concept of “bang for the buck” we talk about in the book quite a bit.

Kent Messer: 
In economics, we often talk about making choices with limited resources so it becomes natural how to think about how to get the best bang for the buck since you can’t get it all. So, bringing an economic toolkit to this problem is important and a natural thing to do.

7 30 18 Image 5 Beebe River NH c Stacy Funderburke201707314 4Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Robin: Tell me a little bit about your collaboration and how it came about?

Kent: It began nearly 15 years ago while I was pursuing a PhD at Cornell University and looking for data to test some new optimization approaches and methods I was working on. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources told me there was some exciting new data developed by The Conservation Fund, so I met Will Allen through that connection and we collaborated on a subsequent project in Delaware using some of the same optimization concepts. It became clear quickly that we could speak each other’s language – whether that was planning, economics, or developing tools for conservation. 

: And after 15 years of a regular stream of projects exploring different aspects of economics for strategic conservation purposes, we felt it was time to summarize what we had learned into a book to elevate this whole discussion to the next level. We had not compiled a compendium of our work, and so our goal was to become an authoritative source for strategic conservation—like the 2006 book by Ed McMahon and Mark Benedict did for the concept of green infrastructure. And in fact, there is a chapter that makes the linkage to that pioneering work. 

7 30 18 MesserAllen Figure 6.1 full colourThe Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative in North Carolina has protected over 84 miles of stream bank across 7,658 acres since its inception. In 2015, the Initiative set a goal of protecting 30,000 acres over the next 30 years. This map and the accompanying strategic conservation GIS model identify where the best bang for the buck is for future protection opportunities (Figure 6.1).

Robin: Can you summarize what your book The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less is about?

Kent: The book is a call for action, it’s an educational manual, and it’s a workbook. In the book, we provide a frank assessment of what has worked in conservation and highlight some of its failures. Conservation efforts throughout the world have a lot of important work to do and the good news is that we have fantastic new tools to build upon successes, but we must be willing to learn from previous failures. Will and I are trying to improve conservation, what we like to call Conservation Planning version 2.0. 

: A unique feature of this book is that we have some hands-on exercises in the back of the book using a couple of web-based tools that have been developed over the years. We've been able to develop online tools that utilize the logic scoring of preference method to effectively structure and weight criteria and optimization techniques that allow the user to assess costs and benefits and come up with an optimal portfolio. 

7 30 18 Image 4 BigRiver California ChadRiley003Photo by Chad Riley.

Robin: Whom do you want to read your book and what actions do you want them to take?

Kent: The book is for the practitioner, someone who is involved in conservation today or training for this as their future profession. We hope they will adopt these techniques for their work. A key challenge is the decentralized nature of conservation efforts in the United States, with a large array of private organizations and public-sector agencies at all levels spread out all over the country with a great deal of enthusiasm and activism, but not a great deal of training in economics. So, to be effective and get this message out, we felt we needed a book to get out the message about the benefit of strategic conservation.

: The book is for planners, for environmental scientists, for environmental economists - all of those overlap within the interdisciplinary notion of strategic conservation and so each of them comes with a particular strength. We have collaborated on research about the willingness to adopt optimization and cost-effective conservation tools. For the resource managers and government officials that run those programs, some of their highest priorities are to be ‘fair’ to the applicants and constituencies they are serving. In their attempts to be fair, they have not usually incorporated cost effectiveness in their decision making, and we feel like this book provides the framework for them to successfully incorporate it now.

7 30 18 Nashville c Dieter Spears istockphotoNashville is well on its way to achieving its vision to become the “greenest city in the south.” The Conservation Fund helped the city develop its first open space plan titled “Nashville: Naturally,” which charted a clear vision for how to protect and connect the city’s green infrastructure. Read more about it here. Photo by Dieter Spears.

Robin: You note in the book the role of human behavior and the difficulty in introducing change. What are some of the signs that would convince you that your book is having an impact?

Kent: We have seen amazing progress over the last two decades in accessibility to technology tools that support strategic conservation. Any practitioners can now access them, which was not the case when Will and I started working on these issues. The next frontier is to refine techniques from the field of behavioral science where you can get stronger on-the-ground results from framing conservation programs in a way that is most attractive for landowners to participate. Our collaborative project in Baltimore County, which we highlight in the book, proved that you by applying the principles of strategic conservation you could protect thousands of additional acres worth millions of dollars without having to spend more money. This approach can scale significantly nationwide if it is applied through voluntary cost share and easement programs. 

7 30 18 mage 6 Baltimore County c Cheapeake Bay ProgramPhoto by Chesapeake Bay Program. 
Find Out More

7 30 18 Image 3 book coverPurchase Kent and Will's new book to learn more about the tools and examples you've read about in the blog:

Amazon Prime Paperback

Cambridge eBook

Find out why strategic conservation can be compared to Major League Baseball's Moneyball by reading more from Will and Kent's conversation with Robin here.

Will Allen grew up with a fascination and understanding of the world’s conservation challenges and opportunities. He explains how this topic has been a thread through his life and career as a conservation planner on the A Sustainable Mind podcast. Among many topics, Will shares how land protection is a very strategic exercise, and how doing it the right way leads to a more sustainable future for our cities and rural communities. Check it out!