Does the Endangered Species Act force agencies to elevate species concerns to a level that prohibits higher order conservation and "new conservation" strategies?
I was recently at a workshop focused on conservation genomics. The tenor of the conversation was excitement for the opportunities afforded by new genetic tools to obtain valuable conservation information at a variety of scales. However, the rubber really hit the road when people talked about species conservation, specifically, the desert tortoise and emerging genetic assessments evaluating the connectedness of populations. This, I thought, is 1980’s, species-focused conservation alive and well.
But should that be so? This workshop got me thinking about ‘new conservation.’ Where and when does this ‘new’ approach of integrating stakeholders to find solutions that work economically for them as well as for conservation likely to work? My thoughts were simple: apparently not here, not now.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the new conservation efforts and consider them important, globally. But at least in this country, we are saddled with three realities that relegate new conservation to be a minor adjustment to anything we can actually accomplish, domestically, for conservation.
First, the strongest regulatory authority for conservation in the US is at the species level. The Endangered Species Act drives a lot of federal action, which drives a lot of private action. State fish and wildlife agencies have jurisdiction over species that aren’t listed. State agencies act to manage game species, species of concern, etc. Government authority on private lands is focused on species, and can be extended to habitats for species of special concern. This authority does not prioritize ecosystem functions.
Second, public agencies are not, as a rule, financed to provide economic incentives to private landowners to encourage participation in conservation efforts. Three exceptions come to mind. A) The USDA Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners (mostly farmers and ranchers) to manage for environmental benefit. Originally conceived as a program to reduce soil erosion, this can contribute to conservation, but it seems to do very little of this. I can’t find much evidence in the literature, anyway. B) California’s Forest Carbon program provides a mechanism for forest owners to sequester and sell carbon, but the low price of carbon means that very few people are signing up. C) Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP’s) provide incentives for conservation actions by landowners, but only through offsets to proposed damages; not as a payments for an ecosystem service. It is difficult to imagine how resource users (e.g., a city) compensate a public landowner for providing common pool resource services from public lands. Not great news for new conservation opportunity seekers.
Third, there is a problem of scale between our thinking about conservation from a global-, academic-, NGO- centered perspective and the realities of public lands management. The collective annual operating budgets of primary terrestrial resource agencies in the US is about $4 billion (see table below). Adding state wildlife budgets probably adds another billion or two. In contrast, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Audubon Society global expenditures only total about $1 billion. (see http://www.conservationmeasures.org/cmp-ccnet-evaluation-results-available/; appendix 18 for the data).
The collective heft of public lands management dwarfs domestic conservation efforts of the big NGO’s and the smaller land trusts many times over. So, ‘new conservation’, systems conservation, ecosystem focused conservation – maybe for the rest of the world. But regulatory compliance-driven species conservation appears to be the recipe for the US.
With these sobering realities, what importance should we place on ‘new conservation’ approaches, the SNAP – Science for Nature and People approach to resource management?
There seems a deep dichotomy between the academic conservation scientist's model of resource conservation and resource conservation in this country. Academically, we would like to think of optimal, efficient, and economic solutions. In many parts of the world, the economics may even pencil out to provide ecological benefit for payments. The major actors in this world are international conservation NGO’s, and the academic scientists who support them with thinking these kinds of big thoughts (for a recent example, see Althor et al, 2016. Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change Scientific Reports). These are interesting, but where does idea meet action?
This academically-driven world of conservation is not, however, how US federal agencies work. Here action is governed by over-arching land management plans that pass through the NEPA process to define acceptable levels of different management actions. Sure, these plans use the best available science, but not necessarily the best available process. Adaptation is difficult, paying private landowners to participate is not in the budget, as a rule; regulations based on species concern is commonplace.
Returning to the desert tortoise, this came up because of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is developing a plan to protect resources and foster renewable energy development (see www.drecp.org). This pits multi-varied interests of energy, recreation, and biodiversity. In this debate the hard legal constraints of take on federally listed species trump ‘new conservation’ optimization strategies that maximize the benefit to the most interest groups. But, maybe that is a good thing for conservation?
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