Socially-acceptable conservation planning: how can we integrate biological and social values to improve conservation?

By Rachael Vorwerk, Amy Whitehead and Heini Kujala (This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)

Understanding how society perceives and values different areas is important for effective land-use planning. Making use of social values is arguably one of the most important challenges in modern conservation planning, yet their potential remains poorly exploited. Previous research suggests the inclusion of social values can reduce conflicts between stakeholders and provide more efficient conservation implementation. However, the potential tradeoffs related to incorporating social values into spatial conservation planning are not well understood. These gaps in knowledge led Amy Whitehead and colleagues to investigate methods for integrating social values into spatial conservation planning.

Obtaining social and biological values

The research group collected spatial data on social values by conducting a Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) survey in the Lower Hunter Valley in eastern New South Wales. Local residents were asked to map areas perceived to be important for their natural or potential development values. Randomly-selected landowners were given a map of the region and a set of sticker dots that corresponded to different social values, including biodiversity, natural significance and intrinsic value types (social values for biodiversity). Another set of stickers corresponded to areas believed to be appropriate for different types of future development (social values for development). Participants were asked to place stickers on areas of the map they associated with each of the social values for biodiversity and development. The responses were then digitised and used to create density maps for each social value in the region.

In addition to social values data, the researchers used biological data to represent areas important for conservation. Seven fauna species considered to be vulnerable to land clearance were selected to represent the biological values in the Lower Hunter Valley. These species were mapped onto the landscape using species distribution models, derived from occurrence data.

Integrating social and biological values in conservation planning

The spatial prioritisation of the Lower Hunter Valley was done using Zonation, a commonly-used tool in conservation planning. The program ranks sites in the landscape based on their importance for all features in the model, producing a spatially-explicit output that identifies areas of high value. Zonation is typically used with biological data to identify areas of high conservation value but any spatially-explicit variable of interest, such as social values, can be included.

The researchers first examined three scenarios that identified priority areas for each of the datasets. The top 30% of each individual prioritisation was overlaid on the other prioritisations to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict. Identifying these areas spatially allows decision makers to target specific actions and policies depending on biological and social values (Figure 1). For example, an area with high biodiversity values and high community awareness for its natural significance (2) may require a different strategy to one with conflicts between high biodiversity values and a perceived suitability for future development (6).

Figure 1. Overlaying the top priority areas from biological values and social values for biodiversity and development allows decision makers to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict between the different value sets.  Each combination requires a specific type of management action and may require further community engagement or specific policy implementation to ensure socially-acceptable conservation outcomes.

Figure 1. Overlaying the top priority areas from biological values and social values for biodiversity and development allows decision makers to identify potential areas of synergy or conflict between the different value sets. Each combination requires a specific type of management action and may require further community engagement or specific policy implementation to ensure socially-acceptable conservation outcomes.

The next step was to integrate the three datasets into spatial prioritisations to examine whether the inclusion of social values for biodiversity and development would come at the cost of trading off actual biological values. The researchers investigated six integrated prioritisation scenarios that explored different methods of integration. Social values for biodiversity were either included as features in the prioritisation together with the biological data, or as a cost layer where the priority areas were pushed towards those areas that the community perceived as having high biodiversity value. Social values for development were either included as a cost layer where the solution was guided away from areas considered to be important for future development, or as a mask where the top 30% of the high priority areas for development were forced out of the conservation solution.

Identifying socially-acceptable conservation areas

Not surprisingly, the best option for conserving of the seven threatened species included in the model was obtained when the prioritisation only considered biological data (Figure 2). Interestingly however, a similar proportion of each species’ current distribution was captured when biological and social values for biodiversity were integrated and prioritised together, although the spatial location of some conservation areas changed. Even when the areas perceived to be most important for development were forced out and the remaining sites were prioritised for both biological and social values for biodiversity, Zonation still managed to find a solution that gave reasonable protection to the seven fauna species. This is good news for planners as it demonstrates spatial flexibility in the way conservation targets may be met in the Lower Hunter Valley. However, it is important to note that some of this flexibility might stem from the type and number of species used in the study; all seven species are forest dwellers and people often perceive forests as more valuable natural areas than, for example, grasslands. The integration of biological and social values may result in greater tradeoffs if a more diverse set of habitats or species were included.

This is one of the first studies to fully integrate spatially-explicit biological and social values into a quantitative spatial prioritisation analysis, providing a simple method to achieve both socially-acceptable and scientifically-defensible conservation outcomes. Such an approach can help decision makers target communication strategies and management actions to specific areas of the landscape, while integrated prioritisations can identify balanced conservation solutions that protect biodiversity and incorporate societal values. Although this approach may create an extra level of complexity for conservation planners, it offers the potential to improve conservation outcomes in contested landscapes.

Figure 2. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of different spatial prioritisation scenarios by isolating the top 30% of each value (biological or social). Six of the seven species’ distributions in the Lower Hunter Valley, NSW, were best represented when the prioritisation only included biological values, while all species were less protected when prioritising social values for biodiversity alone. In contrast, the prioritisation of both biological and social values identified areas for conservation that were socially acceptable and did not lead to significant tradeoffs in conservation value.

Figure 2. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of different spatial prioritisation scenarios by isolating the top 30% of each value (biological or social). Six of the seven species’ distributions in the Lower Hunter Valley, NSW, were best represented when the prioritisation only included biological values, while all species were less protected when prioritising social values for biodiversity alone. In contrast, the prioritisation of both biological and social values identified areas for conservation that were socially acceptable and did not lead to significant tradeoffs in conservation value.

Reference:

Whitehead, A.L., Kujala, H., Ives, C., Gordon, A., Lentini, P.E., Wintle, B.A., Nicholson, E., Raymond, C.M., 2014. Integrating biological and social values when prioritizing for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology 28: 992-1003. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12257

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2 Responses to Socially-acceptable conservation planning: how can we integrate biological and social values to improve conservation?

  1. Pingback: Goodbye Melbourne, hello | Amy Whitehead's Research

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