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Why Our Preserves Still Matter...and How They Could Matter More

Craig Leisher 10/1/2012

The Conservancy manages more than 1,200 preserves in the United States. From the 0.03-acre Lick Run Preserve in Virginia that’s home to one of the rarest native American plants (Iliamna remota) to the 171,813-acre Upper St. John River Preserve that’s three times the size of Acadia National Park, the biggest asset on our balance sheet — metaphorically and literally — is the land we own. Yet the median size of our U.S. preserves is 171 acres (0.27 square miles)…or about half the home range of an urban flock of pigeons.

Thanks to early science leaders in the Conservancy like Bob Jenkins, our preserves contain important biodiversity...for North America. There are, however, more native tree species in a hectare of forest in the Amazon than in all of the United States, and the cost of conserving an acre in the United States is an order of magnitude higher than in most of the other countries where we work. This leads to the question: Are our preserves still central to what we do?

Yes. Ultimately all conservation is retail and not wholesale, and Conservancy preserves are our retail stores. It’s where we show what we do. It’s where we introduce people to our pragmatism and science firsthand. It’s where we experiment with new approaches and demonstrate what works. It is what gives us credibility when talking to decision-makers. Visiting a preserve can inspire a long-term love of nature. There are no long-term heartfelt connections with an Adopt-an-Acre site visited only virtually. It has to be real to last a lifetime.

Demonstration and study sites, credibility with decision-makers, and creating a personal connection with nature are all clear benefits from our hundred dozen preserves. It’s unlikely, however, that we are going to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends by protecting 171 acres at a time. If we do the math and want to protect, say, 10% of every terrestrial biome on earth (sound familiar?), and we could buy another 171 acres every hour, how long would it take us to hit our goal? About 189 years to reach 10% for the six terrestrial biomes that are short of that mark. And this ignores the 71% of the earth that is ocean.

Buying and managing more land will not get us to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. So what if we give our preserves a new role to play? Conservancy preserves are some of the best natural laboratories in the world. If we identify research questions that matter to nature and people, test them rigorously in our preserves and catalyze incentives to replicate the results elsewhere, even 171 acres can have a whole-system impact. The coolest fact is that we are already doing this — just not enough or systematically.

Preserves as Learning Laboratories

The Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska is one of our few preserves thus far with empirical evidence of benefits to nature and people. An assessment (before-after, control-impact) was completed in June 2012 of five prescribed burns and invasive red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) removal sites in Niobrara Valley Preserve using remote sensing imagery along with plant diversity and density transects. The most important ecological finding was that cedar removal via fire or mechanical means resulted in a 22% increase in groundcover of the plant species bison and cattle prefer. While the plant data are for a single point in time, they are suggestive of beneficial changes in plant species communities from cedar removal. This finding is of keen interest to area ranchers because it shows that cedar removal may appreciably improve their slim profit margins.

The assessment also found that the preserve and its staff played a key role in helping change local attitudes towards prescribed burns and building the local institutions, government policies and financial incentives to support wide-spread adoption of prescribed burning as a land management approach.

Mobile Bay oyster reef restoration in Alabama is another example. An economic valuation for restoring local reefs there found that the net present value of the restored reefs over a 50-year timeframe from just the fishery enhancement is $5.6 million, giving the project a social return on investment of 2.3. The valuation results are now being used to leverage state and national incentives for oyster reef restoration.

There are hundreds of research questions about how nature benefits people waiting to be answered. And rigorous, replicable studies are at the heart of science. But it’s the third element — leveraging large-scale change — where we get lost in the woods like a kid without a compass. Too many scientists believe that publishing a study is the end rather than the means, yet most policy-makers rarely read academic journals. They do, however, respond to organized constituencies and on-the-ground proof that an idea works. So how does the Conservancy get from 171 acres of proof on the ground to whole-system impacts? Once again, we are already doing it.

Success Factors

To create large-scale change, we have to first create the factors critical for success. The Niobrara assessment identified a highly replicable pathway to large-scale change. To translate good practices into policies, the Niobrara Preserve and its staff helped start two local institutions, the Sandhills Task Force and the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association (with the help of the Middle Niobrara/Sandhills Fire Learning Network). These local intermediary institutions provided the link between area ranchers and government policy makers and advocated successfully for government incentives to encourage the wider use of prescribed burns and cedar removal. The underlying theory of change is that policy makers respond well to organized groups of constituents championing a better “mousetrap.”

In addition to the local intermediary institutions, key success factors (as identified by Niobrara focus group participants) were:

  • Leading by example. The preserve demonstrated the benefits of cedar removal and prescribed burns, and several preserve staff did the same on their own land.
  • Able leadership. The preserve benefited from managers anchored in the local community who had the leadership and facilitation skills to engender internal and external changes.
  • People people. The people skills of the preserve’s staff were crucial to success.
  • Patient persistence. The preserve staff stayed the course, even though it took more than a decade and a large wildfire to change local perceptions about prescribed burns and cedar removal.

Another large wildfire engulfed much of the Niobrara Valley Preserve in July 2012. Like the Phoenix, though, fire is part of Niobrara’s life cycle. The grasslands are already growing back.

The argument over how conservation can better integrate itself into global conversations too often and too neatly cleaves into a stereotypical divide between “old style” conservationists who want to do what we have always done but at a much larger scale, and “anthropocene” conservationists who want to sell all the land and just work with corporations and policy types. Those stereotypes are not only false to the facts, but they also prevent us from thinking creatively about how our biggest asset can help us tackle future global challenges.

We have 1,000+ preserves. There are 1,000+ unanswered research questions about how nature benefits people. Let’s systematically use our preserves to leverage large-scale change that benefits nature and people. They can be both our retail stores and our living laboratories.


By Craig Leisher, senior social scientist, Central Science, The Nature Conservancy