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Comprehensive Conservation Planning

This section describes how Expert land trust users can apply GIS to undertake comprehensive conservation plans and to do model-based regional assessments.

Over the past 15 years, "conservation planning" has emerged as a major focus for those concerned with land preservation and biodiversity. While endangered species protection is a key part of such efforts, the purposes of conservation planning are much broader: to ensure that significant parts of all landscapes and species remain viable permanently into the future.

In most conservation plans GIS plays a major role - it is used to create and organize data, help make assessments of population viability and display results of prioritization efforts.

Full conservation planning may only be something that a few land trusts choose to undertake. It requires major effort and high levels of skill, and it assumes a desire to plan for the entirety of a land trust's "turf". But all land trusts can benefit by at least applying principles of conservation planning to their work, and by partnering with other organizations and agencies with particular capacity for planning and implementing such plans. Over time, many land trusts may find that conservation principles can be gradually implemented, giving strength to the trust's work and, indeed, better protection to the land.

The following are key elements of conservation planning. This is only a brief overview - those who want to know more should visit the links and resources noted, and connect with university researchers, public natural resource agencies and groups like The Nature Conservancy, NatureServe, and others.

Elements of Conservation Planning

The basic technical steps in conservation planning usually involve an approach like this one:

  1. Identify conservation targets (using endangered, endemic, focal, umbrella and other species target classifications)
  2. Collect information and identify information gaps (part of above, includes a wide range of data, from vegetation to human impact)
  3. Assess existing conservation areas for their biodiversity values (permanence, management conditions, gap analysis, etc.)
  4. Set conservation goals (how much to protect where)
  5. Evaluate the viability and integrity of conservation targets (more detailed population viability analysis)
  6. Select and design a network of conservation areas (define areas and corridors/linkages with specific protections)
  7. Assess threats and set priorities within tracts of land in conservation areas (balance of near and long-term threats, vs. resources available)

From: Drafting a Conservation Blueprint - A Practitioner's Guide to Planning for Biodiversity by Craig R. Groves, The Nature Conservancy (published by Island Press, 2003)

When actually designing a conservation area, the objectives are usually to:

  • Represent all native habitat types across their natural range of variation (species types of endemic, rare, endangered, focal, keystone, umbrella, etc.)
  • Maintain viable populations of all native species in natural patterns of distribution and abundance
  • Maintain ecological and evolutionary processes (disturbance, predation, hydrological regimes) that maintain biodiversity
  • Design the system to be responsive to long-term change (climate change)

Conservation plans normally include these types of actions: designation of reserves, and of corridors and linkages (for species migration); identification of restoration projects to repair damaged landscapes; and reintroduction of ecological processes (fire, etc.). Implementation of these involves acquisition, management, policies, stewardship, etc.

Conservation planning is usually a highly collaborative exercise, involving multiple stakeholders (political, scientific, advocacy, landowner and other interests).  Because conservation plans often call for a range of landscape-wide actions (public and private land mix) they often need broad-based support. 

GIS and Conservation Planning

Data:  GIS data for conservation planning is essential. The most critical data is often detailed vegetation information, which may not be available (vegetation data defines habitat evaluations and is the base for defining species occurrence and migration patterns). Other data sets include base information (roads, elevation, streams, etc.), land use data, aerial photography and wildlife occurrences. For land trusts, conservation planning data will usually be what exists, as detailed data creation can be expensive.

Analysis:  Figuring out where species occur, where stresses are and many other conservation planning tasks requires a wide range of GIS analysis. Some specialized GIS packages exist to define habitat fragmentation and other factors, but this

Display:  Conservation planning requires excellent display mapping, as the information involved is often quite complex. With many stakeholders, such planning work needs to be both scientifically accurate and accessible to a broad audience, many of who will not be technically inclined.

Modeling:  Full conservation plans can benefit from carefully developed models of landscape interactions. These decision support tools can be created for each plan, or they can use pre-defined models. One of the most highly developed models is the NatureServe VISTA program, a very sophisticated extension to ESRI ArcGIS software.  The program uses the MARXAN tool in doing actual conservation reserve design.

More Information

The Nature Conservancy - Conservation Planning Information

Island Press - publisher of books on conservation planning and science, and other environmental topics

Glossary of Conservation Planning Terms (from The Nature Conservancy)

Conserve OnLine - a Nature-Conservancy sponsored site for collaboration projects to support conservation.

NatureServe   a non-profit conservation organization that provides the scientific information and tools needed to help guide effective conservation action, has special focus on ensuing maintenance of natural heritage data in each state.

National GAP Analysis site - State by state data showing common species that are not adequately represented in existing conservation lands. Updating varies by state.

National Biological Information Infrastructure - U.S. government clearinghouse site for a wide range of biodiversity data

© Land Trust GIS 2006