Applied Conservation has adopted the former mission statement of The Nature Conservancy — “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”  To achieve this mission, we ascribe to the approach in TNC’s 2001 Conservation by Design.  We’d like to offer a short essay in support of a place-based approach to biodiversity conservation.

The Case for Place

This mission statement was held by The Nature Conservancy for over 20 years, from the early 1990s to 2012.  The words were carefully chosen by the Conservancy to describe its long-held purpose of conserving biological diversity.  The words have meaning.

  • The diversity of plants, animals and natural communities are what we seek to conserve.  They are the “currency” of the mission.  We often call them our “targets.” As such, we must know what they are, where they are, and how well they are faring.
  • The lands and waters they need to survive are the places that “capture” the targets.  As such, we must know which places capture the greatest diversity and offer the best prospects for their long-term survival.
  •  Preserving the targets and protecting the places requires that three conditions must be met: (1) the ecosystems and species must be sufficiently healthy to persist for a long time; (2) the critical threats they face must be sufficiently abated; and (3) the public and private lands which are their home must be adequately managed.

This mission all comes down to places.

As such, it sometimes seems especially daunting, because surely we – the community of conservation practitioners – cannot pay enough attention to enough places to ever think we could achieve success in accomplishing this mission.

But fortunately, there are a few cards in our collective favor.

First, many of us work at a landscape-level.  Large functional landscapes capture large numbers of ecosystems and species, and also allow for (or can be managed for) the natural processes required for long-term ecosystem health.  Functional landscapes can range from about 50,000 acres to over 1,000,000 acres.  They typically include both public and private lands.

Secondly, it’s been found that a small number of landscapes “capture” a large percentage of ecosystems and species.  Here are the numbers.  There are 67 “ecoregions” in the conterminous United   States.  (An ecoregion is a large region with similar climate, topography and vegetation — the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, and Atlantic Coastal Plain are examples.  In a typical U.S. ecoregion, a portfolio of 20 to 30 well-selected great landscapes will capture almost all major ecological systems and half of all imperiled species in the ecoregion.

So by effectively conserving, on average, about 15 targeted landscapes in each state, we collectively can make a giant step towards achieving mission success.

The good news is this work is well underway.  It is already being carried out – at hundreds of places – by dedicated natural resource managers in public agencies, non-profit conservation organizations, private landowners and other conservation practitioners.

What’s needed are “scorecards” to understand how well we all are doing.

A key part of conservation plans are the scorecards that provide the measures of success.  Landscape conservation forecasting demonstrates that cost-effective strategies can indeed restore ecosystem health and abate future threats at many large landscapes.  For example, The Nature Conservancy completed landscape conservation forecasting with the natural resource managers at Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  This plan showed that a set of relatively affordable management strategies can effectively conserve or restore every ecosystem in the park over the next 50 years.  Similar results have been found in the forests of eastern Tennessee and the Front Range of Colorado.

While some threats imperil ecosystems and species across multiple places and require conservation strategies at larger scales, to achieve success in the mission of conserving biological diversity there is no avoiding the reality and imperative of doing landscape conservation place-by-place.

By engaging public and private conservation partners, by developing and continually improving landscape conservation plans and measures, and by building local capacity for landscape-level conservation programs – together we can conserve thousands of great landscapes worldwide within the next decade. Our scorecards will show the abatement of critical threats and the restoration of ecosystem health at these great landscapes over generations to come.