Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why Is Strategic Conservation Important?

Will Allen, Kent Messer

Why Is Strategic Conservation Important?

In an Interview, Robin Murphy, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, The Conservation Fund asks Will Allen & Kent Messer, Authors of The Science of Strategic Conservation, why strategic conservation is so important.


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 fulfil their conservation visions.


Robin: How did you get started in strategic conservation?

Will: For me the revelation came in college when I learned about Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature concept of suitability analysis where land is more appropriate for specific uses than others based on factors like soils, location, and other criteria. I took an earth science class at Stanford where we did a general plan for the city of Pacifica, California, which inconveniently had lots of landslides, flooding, and houses dropping off eroding cliffs.  So I quickly learned it was extremely important to be strategic with where land development could and should go from an environmental and economic perspective and therefore where it also made sense to practice strategic conservation.

Kent:  My involvement in strategic conservation really was initiated in Denver after I got my undergraduate degree from Grinnell College. I was appointed by the mayor to work on the Stapleton international airport redevelopment project.  We began to look at how could we allocate the land in a way that would foster community, businesses and environmental protection. The plan provided an opportunity to make sure the best land for conservation purpose was preserved, and we were able to work with communities and businesses to make a broad-based plan that would be attractive decades later.


Photo credit: Strategic Conservation for the Loxahatchee River Watershed, by Willy Volk


Robin: Why is strategic conservation important?

Will:  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:  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.


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 and looking for data to test some new optimization approaches and methods I was working on for my dissertation.  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.

Will: 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 in an effort 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.

The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative in North Carolina

The 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: In summary what is the book about? (The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less)

Kent: The book is a call for action, it’s an educational manual, and it’s a work book.  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 got fantastic new tools to build upon successes, but we must be willing to learn from previous failures. Will and I are trying to improve conservations, what we like to call Conservation Planning version 2.0.

Will: 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.


Robin:  Who 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. One of real challenges 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. So to be effective and get this message out, we felt we needed a book to help do that.

Will: 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 come 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 bureaucrats 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.


Robin: In the book, you make a comparison between strategic conservation and Moneyball. Can you elaborate?

Kent: Moneyball brought advanced analytics and statistics to baseball. At first, the approach of Billy Bean and the Oakland Athletics was derided and ignored, but eventually due to their performance and results, it changed baseball and transformed almost all other sports through applications of advanced analytics. I believe the strategic conservation work that Will and I have been pioneering is very much following the same path.

Will: Right. For me, Moneyball was about getting past ‘conventional wisdom’. The Oakland Athletics questioned the conventional wisdom about what criteria should be used to evaluate a baseball player’s ability to help the team get wins. In our book, the conventional wisdom is related to how strategic conservation projects are selected using the rank-based selection method, where you rank projects without regard to cost, buying those until your money runs out. There’s not a single peer reviewed article in the literature that supports the rank based approach as the best method for project selection despite the fact that a large number of conservation programs do that.


Robin: The book is essentially about how to make good and well-informed decisions. Can you elaborate a bit on the trade off on dollars versus acres?

Kent: A centerpiece of the book is the discussion of an experiment involving called bottles of expensive red wine and a hammer. In a nutshell, what would you rather have? One bottle of $100 red wine or four bottles of $25 red wine? The experiment illustrates trade offs, the kinds of trade offs that we do all the time in our lives. We often look for the best bang for the buck in regards to buying groceries or online shopping, so why not use this same principle for public expenditures for conservation as well?

Will: Strategic conservation projects often can be budget sponges and can soak up all of the money that you have available.  And so there’s this opportunity that there might be an alternative portfolio of projects that actually achieve your objectives without overpaying for the one high profile piece, the equivalent of the $100 bottle of wine.

Kent: But, what happens if you tell people that a $100 bottle of wine will be destroyed by a hammer if you choose the four $25 bottles of wine? This analogy can be similar to conservation projects where there is a feeling that an important resource could be lost forever if it is not selected for protection. We discuss this dilemma at length in the book and provide solutions on ways to balance these trade offs.


Robin: You note in the book the role of human behavior and the difficulty in introducing change in human behavior. What are some of the signs that would convince you that you’re 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 and optimize 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 attractive for landowners to participate. Our collaborative project in Baltimore County, which we highlight in the book, proved that 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.


Robin: Can you tell us about the decision support systems you’ve designed for practitioners to use?

Will:  The logic scoring of preference method, which was pioneered by Dr. Jozo Dujmovic at San Francisco State University, is a way to take qualitative criteria and convert them in a way with consistent logic, so that you can basically score everything 0 to 100. And then when you have those scores you can use optimization techniques to look at the cost for each of your projects and come up with an optimized portfolio that maximizes benefit at a given budget.

A good example highlighted in the book is a partnership with the Williams Company on the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline Project in Eastern Pennsylvania.  They were building a pipeline, and knew there would be environmental and community impacts. They felt wanted to go above and beyond compensatory mitigation and do additional community projects.

Williams wanted to identify the important priorities in the community.  So, we convened focus group meetings in each of the counties and identified the important resource values in them. We took that information and went through a process to solicit best projects by identifying them based on criteria based on the value of the projects, as well as the cost.

So, there were stream restoration projects, recreational trail projects and agricultural nutrient reduction project. Each of the projects had a budget and then we essentially selected the optimal portfolio of projects within overall budget constraints.  And then we calculated essentially the metrics of those projects, so that for the funding that Williams invested they got X number of miles recreational trail and an estimated an additional X number of recreational users.


The Science of Strategic Conservation
Protecting More with Less

Kent D. Messer, University of Delaware
William L. Allen III, The Conservation Fund, Chapel Hill, USA











Main image photo credit: Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program. 


Read The Conservation Fund blog here


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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