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Improving Conservation Practice by Investing in Monitoring Strategy Effectiveness

Montambault, Jensen; Groves, Craig

[This working paper is also available in Spanish, Portugues, and Bahasa Indonesian] Monitoring is an investment that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) makes in many of its conservation projects. Monitoring can demonstrate the success of our best strategies, or alternatively guide a change of strategy when we are not achieving intended outcomes. Historically, TNC focused most monitoring efforts on the status of conservation targets on nature preserves. As we have grown and matured as an organization, we have expanded our monitoring efforts to include strategy effectiveness measures (SEM). Investment in SEM must be balanced against what else might be done with these resources. In this document we provide some guiding principles for deciding how much to invest in SEM. The key factors are the potential for risk to the organization (ecological, reputational, legal, and the risk of uncertainty) and leverage (potential for replication and/or institutional learning). We use concrete examples to illustrate the interplay between these factors with monitoring costs ranging from minimal ($100,000/year) investments2.
Although management decisions made without science or data can turn out to be good decisions, applying SEM links decisions to the best available evidence, the nature of which depends on the circumstances. For example, in a low-risk project managers might be able to make good decisions about the effectiveness of stream restoration activities based on a series of photographs (a relatively modest monitoring investment). If, in contrast, managers needed to be able to prove in a court of law that their restoration activities caused a specific benefit to humans or salmon, such as improved water supply or seasonal flow, they might require a robust experimental design and detailed quantitative measurements of water quality and flows for the same stream (a more significant monitoring investment).
In many cases we are not only concerned about site-specific or project-specific outcomes, but generalizations about strategies. On average, does shade grown coffee advance the conservation of biodiversity? For such a global generalization, we systematically compare outcomes over many sites and synthesize the results in a way that guides overall investment in the strategy. As an organization with many projects in many places, TNC has a tremendous opportunity to contribute to global learning about conservation strategies via these systematic reviews that are called either meta-analyses, or evidence-based conservation. There can be spatial, ecological, funding, or capacity limits to the monitoring conducted at individual sites. If TNC funds are invested in monitoring, then protocols should follow the best scientific principles possible in the given circumstances. This way the results from each site can form one piece of critical information in a larger analysis intended to improve the global practice of conservation.