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Evolving Our Conservation Approach: Meeting Global Challenges with Local, Regional and Global Conservation Solutions

Groves, Craig 1/24/2012

In a Nutshell

  • One of the Conservancy’s core strengths is the systematic manner in which we conduct our work — what we refer to as our Conservation Approach.
  • Changes in the economic, social, political and environmental worlds in which we work have made it necessary to revise and improve this approach.
  • Although the basic components of our Conservation Approach — Priorities, Strategies, Actions and Outcomes — remain intact and follow a familiar adaptive management cycle, the ways in which we carry out these components are fundamentally changing and improving.
  • The new way forward: Priorities are established through the Global Challenges-Global Solutions Framework from local to global organizational levels. Strategies and priority projects are developed through a single integrated planning approach referred to as conservation business planning. Actions emphasize leveraged strategies and opportunities that extend beyond the boundary of any single project. Our focus is on long-term conservation outcomes and adapting our strategies and actions to reach outcomes through efficient and effective monitoring and evaluation (measures) programs. 


From local to global scales, the conservation landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, punctuated by a few events and trends:

  • In the United States, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” caused not just a stir but also thoughtful reflection within many organizations on the disappointing progress that that we have collectively made in conservation.
  • There is growing emphasis on conservation efforts that support human well-being, exemplified by the pressure that some multilateral institutions place on conservation organizations to ensure that their projects help alleviate poverty in developing nations.
  • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment informed policymakers of the importance of ecosystem services (AKA “nature’s benefits”); cautioned us about how they are being degraded around the globe; and warned us of the consequences for biodiversity and human well-being.
  • The depth and breadth of climate change impacts on the global environment has surprised even the well-informed and certainly looms as one of the most significant long-term challenges to conservation for people and nature.
  • The global economic turndown of 2008, the effects of which continue to be felt today, contributed to both reduced funding for conservation and a near disappearance of the environment from the public’s radar screen.
  • Finally, we recognize more than ever what scientists have been telling us for quite some time — that to successfully address the world’s most pressing environmental problems, we will need efforts not just at those places that we often call “conservation” or “protected areas” but also between those places within the intervening matrix of lands and water. 

These changes have fundamentally affected how the Conservancy works. Although we still pride ourselves in following a systematic course to our work that we refer to as our Conservation Approach, many staff members may not realize how several ongoing initiatives and task forces — the Global Challenges-Global Solutions framework, the Planning Evolution Team recommendations, and recent efforts to improve the Conservancy’s abilities to measures its effectiveness — are all related and all focused on improving our basic approach to conservation. The presumption of this article is that all staff and partners can benefit from having a basic understanding of our Conservation Approach; and that if we are all collectively focused on implementing that approach, we will be a more effective organization. It is in the spirit of this collaboration and focus that this article has been drafted.

How We Are Changing
The changes in the institutional, political and economic landscapes in which we work represent both challenges and opportunities for the conservation community. The Conservancy is stepping up to these challenges on several fronts.
First, we are both scaling up and focusing our priority work on global challenges and global solutions (protecting and restoring natural systems, using nature sustainably, broadening the constituency for conservation) — all of which involve a more tangible link between our conservation work and its relevance to human well-being. In practice, this means we are integrating a problem-solving approach to global issues with the more traditional target-driven or biodiversity-based approach to conservation that was the focus of our Conservation by Design framework.
Graphic representing the Conservancy’s Global Challenges.
Second, we are organizing our work to make the whole of our efforts greater than the sum of its parts by catalyzing demonstration projects into leveraged policy and broadbased strategies. Illustrative of these efforts is the Latin American Water Fund Platform, which started with a single project in Quito, Ecuador and now includes over 30 projects in multiple countries.
Third, we increasingly recognize that we can achieve more for conservation by working closely with partners from other sectors such as the energy or fishing industries to help reach their objectives as well as ours through approaches like Development by Design or marine spatial planning. Scientists and planners refer to this work as multi-objective planning, and much of it evolved from the Conservancy’s earlier efforts in conducting ecoregional assessments.
Fourth, we are building a better and bigger toolbox for conservation planning. This toolbox integrates spatial planning — which identifies important places for conservation action (e.g., ecoregional assessments) — with strategic planning. It places more emphasis on the costs and benefits of alternative strategies. It focuses on addressing questions that managers need to answer. And it recognizes the growing and important role that social and economic science play in our work.
Finally, more of our conservation work is focused on whole systems — recognizable ecological units like the Central Appalachians. (See July 2011 Chronicles for more details on the whole system approach.) In these units, we are emphasizing the importance of sustaining ecosystem services and processes. We are connecting our work to local people. And we are deploying a variety of conservation interventions across priority conservation areas and the broader landscapes and watersheds in which they are embedded — landscapes and watersheds that are also critical to long-term conservation success.
Our Evolving Approach
The Conservancy has long taken a systematic approach to conservation, beginning with our efforts to establish state natural heritage programs (see in the 1970s and 80s. The Conservation by Design framework that has guided the Conservancy for the last 15 years has firmly established our basic adaptive management approach to conservation. Both the natural heritage network and Conservation by Design provided a strong foundation and legacy on which the Conservancy can continually improve its conservation approach.
The basic adaptive management framework of priorities-strategies-actions-outcomes remains our guidepost. But, under our evolving conservation approach, its content has changed and improved in significant ways. Today, we are working to ensure that the needs of both people and nature are being met — not just the globally important biodiversity we care about, but also the benefits and services that this biodiversity provides to human well-being. So what does our evolving approach to conservation look like and how may it continue to change in the foreseeable future?
Priorities. Organization-wide priorities are driven by local, regional and global solutions to the global challenges. These broad solutions — protecting and restoring natural systems, using nature sustainably, broadening the constituency for conservation — are being implemented through the integrated efforts of focal area teams such as the Global Marine Team; regional programs (such as the North American Oceans and Coast program); and our field programs working together across boundaries. And these broad solutions are being translated to a more tangible set of on-the-ground priorities by applying four important filters:
  1. Importance for nature, including the ability to focus on “whole systems”;
  2. Importance for people — focusing on natural systems whose conservation will tangibly help local people confront challenges they face;
  3. Near-term opportunity to have impact at scale (e.g., restoration from the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico); and
  4. Existence of TNC resources and capacity.
Although our priority solutions will always be dynamic as global and national situations change, some of the most important priorities now include projects focused on forest carbon emissions and sequestration, ecosystem-based adaption, integrated ocean management, water funds, sustainable agriculture and Development by Design.
Under the auspices of Conservation by Design, our priorities were the result of ecoregional assessments — a “portfolio of conservation sites” that would collectively conserve the biodiversity of regions. In our evolving Conservation Approach, our priorities include both places (i.e., conservation areas) and strategies. These strategies are being developed in direct response to major conservation problems or challenges and often have multiple goals related not only to biodiversity, but also to ecosystem processes and services (i.e., nature’s benefits), and other human well-being goals (e.g., energy production, food security, clean water).
Finally, we are striving through all of these priorities to achieve conservation’s silver bullet — demonstrating solutions at proof-of-concept projects through which we are able to leverage conservation results beyond the boundary of any single project. For example, our Sustainable Rivers Program originated as a partnership between a local TNC program and the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Green River in Kentucky. The program has now expanded to pilot projects across the nation in which we are working to implement improved ecological flows below Corps dams that will better benefit both biodiversity and people. 
Strategies. Strategies are now designed from an integrated planning framework we refer to as conservation business planning, which combines the best features of ecoregional assessments, conservation action planning or CAP (the Conservancy’s version of strategic planning) and business planning. Implementing conservation business planning has several advantages over the ways we have conducted planning and developed strategies previously. First, it focuses our planning on a core set of questions for which managers want answers (see box below). Second, it forces us to be clear about the purpose of a plan, the audience for it and the decisions that will be made as a result of it. Perhaps most importantly, conservation business planning encourages us to look at alternative strategies or solutions for solving problems and carefully compare the costs and benefits of these alternatives. Finally, it will necessitate that we more carefully consider the risks and assumptions behind different strategies and be more realistic about the funding required to implement various interventions.
Conservation business planning is supported by a flexible, diverse toolbox of methods that help planners and practitioners develop practical plans in a diversity of settings. New tools in the toolbox include multi-objective planning, scenario analyses, climate impact and adaptation tools (i.e., Climate Wizard), and a variety of socioeconomic methods, to name just a few. Familiarity with these new tools will grow with experience, training and support. Information on these tools and others will be available in future editions of Conservation Business Planning Guidance. An interim version of this guidance is available to all Conservancy staff and partners.
Actions. Actions take place at scales from local to global, just as they have for years in the Conservancy. What is different in our evolving approach is that many of these actions are intended to capitalize on policy and business opportunities, such as the restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico following the disastrous oil spills there. A greater emphasis on replicating and leveraging actions from successful demonstration projects across broader geographies is also a hallmark of our evolving approach. We aspire to share lessons learned implementing a strategy in one locale across the Conservancy and its partners via learning and peer review networks, through a state-of-the-art web-based database of conservation projects (ConPro), and vis-à-vis a newly launched Conservancy-wide Knowledge Initiative. Yet, we recognize that such aspirations will require substantial transformation in information systems (already underway) that will help transition the Conservancy to a true learning institution that can transfer lessons learned in any project no matter where it is located.
A Conservancy staff member conducts household surveys in Papua New Guinea as part of training
on socioeconomic monitoring in the Asia-Pacific Region. Image credit: Michael Guilbeaux.
Although the Conservancy has always worked with a variety of partner organizations to advance our conservation strategies and actions, our evolving approach includes some new and non-traditional partners and some actions that are not strictly focused on biodiversity conservation. For example, in the Greater Mahale Ecosystem in Tanzania, we are working closely with Pathfinder International to help improve the health of both human and ecological communities. In the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, the Conservancy is working with government, the U.S. Agency for International Development and a variety of other stakeholders to zone ocean areas for multiple objectives including fisheries, ecotourism, transportation corridors and conservation. Similar projects using marine spatial planning methods are underway in Latin America, the United States and Indonesia.
Outcomes. Today, the Conservancy is working to incorporate people into its results and outcomes — not simply establishing a payment-for-ecosystem services (PES) scheme, for example, but ensuring that this PES scheme benefits both people and nature. In water producer projects in Brazil, the Conservancy and its partners are monitoring water quality, stream flows, forest and aquatic biodiversity, and restoration efforts to ensure that upstream watershed improvements translate into downstream water quality for the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sau Paulo. These efforts are indicative of our expectations that all of the Conservancy’s priority projects will be evaluating the effectiveness of their most important strategies and actions.
Although measuring effectiveness of conservation efforts has been the “Achilles heel” of the conservation community, the Conservancy has made and continues to make a substantial organizational-wide investment in monitoring and evaluation or “conservation measures” (in TNC parlance) to ensure that we are achieving both near-term results and longer-term conservation outcomes in our most important projects and programs. Over the last four years, this investment has taken the form of training workshops, guidance papers, online monitoring training modules and senior management project reviews. Peer review and expert workshops are helping ensure that results from measuring progress are put into practice — to alter our strategies and reallocate our investments when necessary to adapt to what our measures tell us. We have made steady progress in evaluating the effectiveness of our work, yet we must remain steadfast in our efforts to help the Conservancy’s most important projects complete the full cycle of our Conservation Approach. Doing so will help ensure that we are transparently learning and adapting as we are doing. 
Putting the Approach in Practice
At its core, our Conservation Approach retains the Conservancy’s version of the familiar plan-do-check-adapt adaptive management cycle — but it is renovated to meet today’s monumental challenges with solutions that are equal in scope. Though elegantly simple in concept, adaptive management (sometimes now referred to as results-based management) has proven difficult to implement in the conservation world. At the Conservancy, we take adaptive management seriously — but even here it can be challenging for staff members to conceptualize much less understand the different moving parts. This is where recent innovations in measures and planning will help. The Global Challenges-Global Solutions Framework is largely focused on priority setting. Another initiative — the Planning Evolution Team — recently recommended a number of changes to the way that we do planning that should help improve the “strategies” component of our approach. Meanwhile, a Conservation Impact Goals (and Measures) initiative launched by the Chief Conservation Officer will continue to underscore the importance of measuring our conservation effectiveness in the Conservancy’s most important projects and programs.
The result of all these efforts is a dynamic Conservation Approach, one in which the methods, approaches and tools for advancing through the approach are constantly being improved. Moving forward, the investment in using this Conservation Approach by any one project or program should be tailored to the costs, risks, leverage and other factors specific to that program or project. One size does not fit all for our varied programs and projects across the Conservancy. Yet all of our projects should endeavor to employ these four basic adaptive management components, drawing upon the variety of tools in conservationists’ toolbox. Doing so will not only make the Conservancy and its partners more effective, it will improve the practice of conservation for the collective conservation industry.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Robin Cox, Matt Durnin, Doria Gordon, Alison Greenberg, Lynne Hale, Kara Jackson, Peter Kareiva, Jensen Montambault, Jerry Touval, Bob Lalasz and Supin Wongbusarakum, whose comments on earlier drafts of this paper substantially improved it.

Lead graphic: Diagram of the Conservancy’s evolving conservation approach. Credit: Christine Mathison/TNC

Author’s note: We welcome feedback on the ideas presented in this paper. Please email your comments to Craig Groves. A more detailed version of this paper will be posted on the Strategy and Learning Team’s Conservation Planning (Sharepoint) page.