Or, do we really need a to engage in another intellectual pissing match in conservation?
Is anything actually new in ‘new’ conservation, and are there actually new things going on in conservation?
(no and yes, but you need to read on to get my take on that.)
I promised that I would check back in with a report on how it is going in my experiment to half ‘flip’ the classroom in my graduate class in conservation ecology. The short answer?
Does the Endangered Species Act force agencies to elevate species concerns to a level that prohibits higher order conservation and "new conservation" strategies?
It being the holidays, I am taking a bit of a different approach to the Blog today. Also, it is brief.
The scientific literature evaluating the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act is large. The USFWS has been pretty open about publishing status and expenditure data. Numerous researchers have culled through these data to look at critical habitat listings, recovery plans, expenditures, trends in status, the relationship between spending, critical habitat listing, recovery plan completion and status. The list goes on.
What has been largely missing has been an analysis of the impact of section 7 consultations, where the USFWS decides whether or not a proposed action imposes undue risk to the species. This is made difficult by the fact that there are thousands of consultations, formal and informal, and the agency does not enter these all into computers and make them publicly available. And, this is the aspect of the ESA that us constantly under threat of revision under proposals to change the ESA. The ESA is viewed by some as too restrictive on economic growth, and too costly to private landowners, preventing them from doing what they want with their land.
There have been two previous attempts to take a look at a small sample of these consultations to decide what happens. Until now. This week Jacob Malcolm and Ya-Wei (Jake) Li from Defenders of Wildlife published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In this paper, they aggregate over 88,000 records of consultations to ask how often consultations with the USFWS result in development projects being denied. The answer? Twice in 88,000 cases between 2008 and early 2015; essentially never.
This is big news for the conservation community because it suggests that either (a) the ESA is ineffective at stopping development that harms endangered species; (b) agencies have learned what does and does not pass muster and hence refrains from asking when the answer will be ‘no.’ I would like to think that the latter is the correct interpretation. However, previous constrained attempts to analyze section 7 consultations found more declinations of permission ~1980 and early 2000’s. Hence, there isn’t compelling evidence that the ESA ever did shut down development through consultation.
Perhaps this is not a surprise.
California forests give us clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, lumber and recreation. But they are threatened by a maelstrom of environmental drivers of change, which have intensified across four years of drought. Consider just one indicator of forest health: In its most recent survey (May), the US Forest service said more than 12 million trees in California were dead. A scientist using new technology to measure drought stress said this week to the number may soar to 120 million — one-fifth of the state's forests.
We need a new vision for managing our wildlands with policies based on science and acting in the interest of the greatest public good. Horrific recent events should inspire reform of not only wildfire management, but also of our overall forest-health stewardship and governance.
The incentives -- and opportunities -- for real progress have never been greater. Federal agencies (which manage 19 million acres, or 57 percent, of California forests) have a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Plan. The U.S. Forest Service is writing nearly 150 new fire plans. The top officials of the departments of Interior and Agriculture and of the White House Office of Management and Budget recently asked Congress to adequately fund the soaring costs of wildfire suppression (an estimated half of the USFS budget in 2015), so that they can stop borrowing from agency budgets for fire prevention, forest research and recreation.
Climate optimism, steady state economics, the rise of global extremist groups and conservation: COP 21, Paris. Connecting disparate dots. (#COP21PARIS).
The Climate talks in Paris (COP21) opened this week (Nov 30) and who, exactly, should care? Yes, this is the 21st annual meeting. Yes, all the previous agreements appear to have had minimal effect on rates of burning fossil carbon. Remember Kyoto (1997)? It came into effect in 2005; with a target date of 2012. It seems few countries took any direct action to meet Kyoto goals as we zipped straight past 2012, increasing global emissions more or less on the business as usual trajectory (see global emissions graph below). Countries such as Australia took the bold move to set carbon taxes, but then the government changed and away went taxes.
As conservation biologists, why should we pay attention to the Paris talks? Clearly national governments have not gotten serious about policies that curtail emissions. The con sequence is that conservation researchers have been busy exploring adaptation options to the ~ 4oC we expect by the end of the century. We spent a decade trying to persuade the world that climate change would have adverse impacts on nature (large biotic turnover, ecosystem change, increased extinction; reduced ecosystem services). Contrast the literature on ecological impacts of changing climate to the one that argues that climate change is a crime against humanity accountable in the world court by virtue of stripping oceanic nations of their, well, nations. If a threat of war crime accountability does not change government policies, a little extinction, with all due respect to polar bears, won’t either.
So maybe ecologists follow the 99 % of humanity and ignore the COP process. The fact that Paris is reeling from recent acts of terror and now gobs of heads of state are rolling into town is likely to generate more interest than normal, but actual government action? Get real, says my inner skeptic.
On the other hand, there are clear signs of progress on a number of fronts that starts to make one think that maybe we won’t stay on this path to burning every last gigaton of carbon at our disposal. Here are five facts to help you think positively about ongoing climate progress in actions*:
1. US Carbon emissions have been declining since 2007 (EPA 2014 GHG Survey)
2. The cost of photovoltaics is 5% of what it was 20 years ago (Bloomberg)
3. The cost of a battery in a Nissan Leaf is now just $5000, 1.3 of what it was when the car emerged.
4. Wind power now costs less than gas.
5. There are fewer coal plants each year in the US.
1. The Pope is out stumping the climate change message to the 16% of global Catholics
2.Gallup reports that since 2010 the fraction of Americans who think that worries about climate change have been exaggerated has declined 6% and those who think it is underestimated has risen 10%.
3. The New York Times reports that even most Republicans back climate action.
Pull weeds or spray; Restore wetlands or adapt, Invest in stakeholder engagement or regulatory policy change,... The practice of conservation requires decision making. As humans, we recognize that any decision, even something as simple as where to go to lunch, gets more difficult when the number of people goes up, goals become more divergent, or the cost of making a bad choice goes up. Conservation is replete with complex decisions fraught with uncertainty of outcomes and divergent stakeholder values. Support for making decisions in order to explain decisions to stakeholders is now recognized as essential to conservation practice.
A conservative estimate suggests that over 10,000 conservation projects are currently using some form of formal decision support to drive decisions on what actions to take on behalf of conservation. To spray or pull weeds, put in nest boxes or restore stream banks, develop citizen science / interpretative materials or
fund science: deciding how to invest limited resources to best achieve competing conservation objectives can be very daunting. The challenge is made doubly daunting when
Decision support frameworks are viewed by agencies and NGO’s as essential because of a need for stakeholder accountability and the desire to demonstrate that actions are resulting in favorable conservation outcomes. Decision support falls in the realm of planning, with the result of planning as a conservation profession. The need for stakeholder accountability driver is both broad and deep. The US Federal government requires accountability on everything from meeting travel expenditures to long-range forest plans. NGO’s are experiencing increased accountability from foundations as well as individual donors. Charity Navigator now exists as an organization to help you as a donor hold your organizations accountable for their expenditures.
Accountability begets decision documentation: what decision was made, what information was used to make that decision; what process was followed to make the decision, did stakeholders have a voice in the decision and how did they react to the decision? Much of this, for the US is codified through the NEPA1 decision process. Passed in 1970, the age of NEPA suggests that accountability is not all that new.
What is new, however, is that the well-established fields of decision science and project management are making their way into conservation planning as frameworks for addressing these accountability concerns. Conservation practitioners are increasingly using terms such as “theory of change”, “outcome evaluation”, and “participatory decision making” in their work.
The emergence of multiple decision support frameworks for conservation can be boggling to practitioners trying to practice, and scientists trying to conduct science that informs actual practices (connect knowledge to implementation). Structured Decision Making, Systematic Conservation Planning, the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Evidence Based Conservation, Conservation Evidence, Management Strategy Evaluation, the list is mind boggling and keeps getting longer each year (Climate smart conservation, Strategic foresight, Conservation business planning,..). As the application of these tools has grown during the 21st century, so have the communities of people who practice them, the organizations that endorse them, and the venues through which to learn them. But where do you start?
Sticking a toe in the water to try and learn decision support frameworks is justifiably daunting. Is one better, or more versatile than another? As a scientist who invested in both WordPerfect and Quattro Pro as software packages, I am personally wary of making a choice that I will back out of down the road. I want certainty that I am choosing for the long run. But, will that happen with conservation decision support? Is there likely to be a best choice? Are decision frameworks even here to stay?
There are a variety of reasons why I think that decision support for accountability is here to stay and that it is generating better conservation actions on the ground. However, there are also grounds to think that tracks will not converge and that conservation will simply grow a larger and more confusing toolbox as time moves forward.
Frankly, I think that a big, possibly confusing, toolkit is the best solution: a diversity of tools for conservation decision support. Just as you can cut wood with numerous tools (hand saw, circular saw, table saw, mitre saw,...), I think that conservation practitioners should begin to get comfortable with a very diverse toolkit to support decisions. And just like cutting wood, many tools may work perfectly respectably in many cases, even though there are clearly cases where getting the tool choice exactly right can make all the difference in particular situations.
Today I note the publication of an editorial by Eddie Game, myself and Andrew Knight in Conservation Letters. Andrew is the former Editor-in-chief (EiC). Eddie is the current EiC. When Andrew was at the helm and Eddie and I were associate editors we got to talking about what it means to do policy relevant conservation science. After all, the mission of Conservation Letters is to publish policy relevant science. Recognizing the role of luck and happenstance, we acknowledge that scientists often do conservation science with no notion, a vague notion, or perhaps a clear notion of how this science could become policy relevant. Often this has to do with policy windows that open up, allowing the opportunity to change how some resource is managed through international agreement, domestic law, agency policy, or managers adopting a common practice. We consider all of these to be ‘policy’ in the broad sense. Despite this, our collective impression is that our conservation science community very rarely enters a project with a mind to actively design the science to be policy relevant. Admittedly, this can be difficult. The pace of science is slow relative to the pace of policy. Science pretty much needs to be road ready by the time lawmakers address a law in order for the science to matter. Management practice may be more forgiving, waiting for the science in order to inform management practices.
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