An increasing number of conservation projects designed to address ecological management, protection, and restoration are being judged based on the investment returns they are able to produce. The costs, benefits, and risks of these projects can all be assessed using conservation return on investment (ROI) analysis, a method to help conservancies prioritize possible programs based on their relative expected yields. In order to assess current ROI capabilities, analysis barriers, and areas of potential improvement, in a new RFF discussion paper, I took a look at three case studies, focusing on large-scale conservation projects in North and South America.
Brazil’s Atlantic Forest region currently operates under a payments for ecosystems services (PES) program, as well as the “Extrema” program, a system which monitors 551,000 acres of area watershed. The area’s severely degraded watershed and high levels of deforestation have motivated conservation projects to preserve the system’s role as a water source for São Paulo. These projects feature several monitoring and modeling innovations which assist in ROI analysis—including baseline vegetation mapping and land cover assessments—though implementation issues for some observation and budgetary plans remain. Many benefits of these programs have also likely gone unmeasured, and could be identified through a social or economic program evaluation.
A hemisphere away, the 19 million–acre Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) in Western North America is the result of a 2006 protection agreement between British Columbian and First Nation provincial governments that encompasses mostly undisturbed forest. The GBR conservation program establishes a wide range of goals, including the delineation of protected areas, the establishment of ecological forest goals, and the improvement of financing for First Nation economies and forest management. In this case, the complexity of the agreement, the number of participants, and the long duration of its development make it difficult for ROI analysis to account for all existing factors, while the sheer scale of the protected area under scrutiny presents its own unique challenges.
Finally, the 9,250-acre Warm Springs Mountain (WSM) preserve in rural Virginia represents a recreationally and aesthetically important portion of ecologically significant land. Many of the goals of the preserve reflect its regional biodiversity; WSM conservation objectives include the preservation of suitable habitats for threatened animal populations as well as the support of large-scale conservation through collaborations with federal land managers. The Nature Conservancy’s 2002 purchase of the parcel protected it from land development and logging, and a system of management activities and experiments tests the resilience of the area’s ecosystem in response to habitat degradation and the introduction of invasive species. The WSM preserve is most notable for its commitment to these landscape management experiments as they are rarely attempted in the conservation world, and the area’s connectivity to a larger network of surrounding protected lands make it an appealing center for further conservation ROI developments.
These case studies collectively reveal the large leaps in innovation that conservation ROI analysis has undergone, as well as large gaps in its current abilities. The field has already begun to benefit from the creation of new methods for modeling and analysis that keep track of area-specific ROI needs, as well as the collection of experiment-based data. However, the current availability of basic data and analysis for these areas is incomplete in many places, and overcoming this critical barrier will require further investments in monitoring and evaluation systems that can complement large-scale conservation projects.