Or, do we really need a to engage in another intellectual pissing match in conservation?
I have written previously about the challenge to provide effective decision support for conservation. (http://www.naturesconfluence.com/blog/conservation-decisions). I have been seriously stuck on what appears to be a pissing match among several flavors of decision support. Structured decision making (SDM) favors an emphasis on evaluating the consequences of trade-offs among different actions and uses, among other things, multi-criteria evaluation. The Open Standards (OS) emphasizes causal chains and distinguishing where along a chain from ultimate to proximate drivers of threat management action can make a difference. Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP), in contrast, features the spatial uncertainty of where to take action. There are more, but those are what I think are the three biggies.
It has seemed to me that each of these approaches has a great deal of merit, and that each has made persuasive arguments for why they place such great emphasis on a particular kind of problem that conservation planning often faces. However, these arguments, being mis-aligned, results in what are fundamentally “schools of thought” in conservation planning.
I find the idea of conservation planning breaking down into schools of thought to be an unfortunate twist. Schools of thought have historically led to polarization, calcification and a lot of wasted time in subsequent undoing of the boundaries that separated ideas that have both merit and weaknesses. My touchstones on this are the Clementsian versus Gleasonian views on the Community; the European and American Schools on vegetation sampling; the Strong/Simberloff vs Diamond/Brown/Grant view on community assembly. All of these have been largely resolved. They all developed volumes of papers whiling away people’s careers arguing the finer points of each before coming to some middle ground.
I have been reading Conservation Planning by Grove and Game for a graduate reading discussion. It is a great book. For the most part, these authors try to break down these distinctions, and the propensity for individuals to color their jersey based on their preferred approach to planning (and there are more than just these three). However, the authors come across as considerably less in the Open Standards camp than other camps (despite the OS connection to TNC’s Conservation Action Planning and both authors being TNC employees). This becomes apparent in Chapter 5 where they give short shrift to the OS process of Situation Analysis.
And, here is the rub. These authors state that it is ok to move through situation analysis and threats rankings quickly because we will get back to this when we evaluate carefully alternative actions in the multi-criteria assessment phase. This approach, however, can make a fundamental and costly mistake in conservation planning. The mistaken SDM assumption, in my mind, is that we actually understand how socio-ecological system works. This is an assumption that gets buried by following SDM approach down to evaluate actions. How do we know we have the right actions? Here is where OS excels. By carefully engaging in a situation analysis that lays out assumptions about how the system works, we can target actions to some proximate or ultimate driver of the threat and then follow the consequences of the action in order to learn and adapt. In complex systems, this seems like a requisite step.
The rap on OS, in contrast, is that it does a relatively weak job of assessing which actions will be the most effective to take by taking a hard look at a quantitative assessment of expected benefit with investment. SDM does this really well. This is a fair critique.
On the other side of the fence, SCP is doing a great job with spatial prioritization, something that both OS and SDM recognize as important, but do not structurally integrate.
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