Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Protecting More with Less: Forest Protection Using the Science of Strategic Conservation

Will Allen, Kent Messer

Billions are spent annually around the world to protect and restore the world’s forest resources. Governmental and philanthropic financial resources primarily support these efforts, and these investments frequently result in 1) preservation of forests that protect resources such as endangered species, rare ecosystems, or exceptional water quality; 2) maintenance and enhancement of sustainably managed working forests that provide numerous environmental benefits while also providing fiber supplies and economic benefits to people through job creation; or 3) expansion of urban tree canopies that provide multiple ecosystem service benefits to urbanized areas.

Despite all this investment, very little attention has been paid to how cost effective these investments are and whether governments and communities that rely on forest resources are getting the most ‘bang for their buck’.

For over 10 years, we have been on a journey to apply promising approaches that are commonly used in the business world, scientific inquiry, and policy making areas outside forest protection that help ensure more strategic and cost-effective outcomes. We are committed to bridging the “implementation gap” between academia and the conservation profession by using the best available tools from economics, operations research, behavioral science, decision analysis, and computer science to support cost effective forest conservation and environmental stewardship of natural resources. We have successfully applied these tools in a variety of project contexts, leading to more strategic conservation, more acres of forest protected, and shrewd use of available financial resources. Now we have completed our new book, The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less, as an effort to help publicize these efforts and scale these core principles of strategic conservation.

Significant advancements have been made in the theory and practice of conservation science to strategically identify the most important forests for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and other conservation objectives. Landscape ecology, conservation biology, and land use planning are some of the fundamental disciplines of strategic conservation planning that have been effectively applied to help achieve on-the-ground successes. We have attempted to harness these tools through the development of optimization decision support tools and applied projects that demonstrate how the comprehensive integration of these scientific disciplines into strategic conservation can help ensure the best conservation outcomes at a given level of financial investment – or alternatively, how specific conservation goals can be achieved at the lowest possible cost.

As a conservation planner, Will is engaged in advancing structured decision making tools able to quantify the benefits of potential conservation investments that result in better project selection and decision making. As a behavioral economist, Kent is engaged in cutting-edge research and outreach efforts related to efficient and effective environmental conservation.  Our book highlights many of these advances in integrating these techniques for a variety of conservation contexts, including forest protection.

One example in the book is our work in the Kansas City region with the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) to develop regional forest conservation and restoration models for its planning jurisdiction. MARC oversees investments in transportation infrastructure and was interested in understanding where they could avoid and minimize potential impacts to forested lands and where they could locate strategic mitigation opportunities when impacts were unavoidable. We developed geospatial suitability models using a structured decision making method called the Logic Scoring of Preference (LSP) that established quantified benefits in four categories: clean water (quality and quantity), clean air (carbon storage, pollution), quality of life (recreation, protected lands), and wildlife habitat (green infrastructure network). The MARC project illustrates how to effectively develop, organize, and prioritize decision making criteria in a structured and consistent way to maximize the value of forest conservation and restoration methods.

While the MARC example illustrates maximizing benefits, our work with the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program (FLP) demonstrates how project selection can and should be optimized. FLP supports efforts to preserve forest land by providing funds for conservation easements that prohibit development of environmentally important forest parcels and often require private owners to use sustainable forestry practices to protect existing stands and related ecosystem services. We analyzed their project selection methods and demonstrated the value of changing to a strategic conservation approach that uses optimization. We showed how a strategic conservation approach could have resulted in the protection of additional 100,000 acres (a 117 percent increase) without costing the federal government any more money in one year alone! Applying strategic conservation to FLP’s selection process would increase how rapidly conservation occurred, and, ultimately, influence priorities when conserving forests by driving them to fully consider costs in their proposals.

These and other examples in the book demonstrate how to apply these tools to your own forest conservation and restoration work, allowing you to accomplish more with less by combining the benefits of structured decision making and optimization and an understanding of the power of conservation markets and nuances of human behavior.

We hope that as you celebrate the International Day of Forests that you can seek to apply the tools of strategic conservation to your own local, national and international efforts to protect and enhance forests.


The Science of Strategic Conservation
Protecting More with Less

Not yet published – available from April 2018

Pre-order your copy here


Professor Kent Messer of the University of Delaware

Professor Kent Messer of the University of Delaware

William L. Allen, III, The Conservation Fund, Chapel Hill, USA

William L. Allen, III, The Conservation Fund, Chapel Hill, USA


About The Authors

Will Allen

William L. Allen III manages strategic conservation planning services, including green infrastructure plans, data-driven structured decision-making tools, and enterprise geospatial...

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Kent Messer

Kent D. Messer, University of Delaware, is the Unidel H. Cosgrove Chair at the University of Delaware, and co-director of the National Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-E...

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