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The Rollup: Reflections on Completing the U.S. Ecoregional Assessment Database

Farigone, Joe; Cox, Robin; Groves, Craig 3/14/2012

The Conservancy’s North America Region recently completed the “Ecoregional Roll-Up”— putting all of our conservation priority areas and targets into one database that can easily be viewed, searched and downloaded from a public website.

The database’s completion is the culmination of an ambitious Conservancy project that began in the mid-1990s: to generate a comprehensive conservation vision for the United States. Many, many Conservancy staff members contributed to this project over the years. In honor of this landmark, Joe Fargione asked Craig Groves and Robin Cox, two long-time Conservancy employees who were intimately involved in this effort, to reflect on the accomplishment.
If you don’t know: Craig Groves directs the Conservancy’s Conservation Measures Team. Robin Cox is associate director of conservation for TNC’s California program. It’s hard to imagine TNC without ecoregional assessments. When did we start doing them, and what did we do before them?
Robin Cox: During the 1980s, our conservation planning focused on rare species and natural communities, using an approach we called range-wide planning. Planning tools were pretty simple — clear acetate overlays showing the locations of important sites draped over USGS topographic maps…no GIS, no computer models, lots of expert input.
I was one of a couple of ecologists hired in California during the mid-1980s to develop early range-wide plans — which meant crafting custom conservation plans for each of the many hundreds of biodiversity targets tracked by our state’s Natural Heritage program. Sounds simple, but it turned out to be a never-ending task. We started at the top of the alphabet with Abronia alpine — a globally threatened endemic plant. After several years, we had only made it to Limnanthes — at which point we began to question the wisdom of doing single-target planning. And though we were securing many of the priority places identified through rangeland planning, these sites were widely scattered, lacked connectivity and captured a very narrow spectrum of the state’s complex biodiversity patterns and processes. We simply were not conserving an ecologically cohesive set of conservation areas.
From an implementation perspective, our state director in California, Steve McCormick, wondered how long he could convince donors that the latest list of “best places” was somehow better than the previous list. Indeed, some of our most sophisticated donors were asking, “when are you done?” — challenging us to essentially map “mission success.” So, in 1991, we launched bioregional planning in California, using what we now call “ecoregions” as our organizing lens. We expanded our goal from preserving pockets of rare species and natural communities to safeguarding a suite of intact sites that collectively represented a full microcosm of ecoregional biodiversity. McCormick called the resulting maps our blueprints for successful conservation. The approach resonated with our agency partners and private donors, and many millions of conservation dollars were directed to protecting these systematically selected areas.
Craig Groves: Most TNC projects before the ecoregional approach followed the California approach: They were focused on the conservation of rare species and rare (ecological) communities and were often confined to only portions of some states. State TNC programs primarily relied on Natural Diversity Scorecards, which were prepared by state Natural Heritage Programs. These scorecards contained information on priority sites that needed conservation action; the elements (conservation targets) of biodiversity that were found on the site; and often information about threats, current management and landownership.
In the mid-1990s, TNC President John Sawhill asked Steve McCormick to lead a committee of senior conservation leaders (called the Conservation Committee) to develop a more forward-thinking vision for biodiversity conservation. It was the Conservation Committee that produced the first version of that vision in 1996 — what we now know as the Conservation by Design framework, which directed the Conservancy to focus its conservation work on “portfolios of sites in ecoregions.” The Conservancy then undertook the task of completing ecoregional plans for the entire country (and for ecoregions outside the United States where the Conservancy worked) with the aim of conserving, in collaboration with the entire conservation community, all the biodiversity of entire ecoregions. The first plans were completed around 1998.
These assessments weren’t just a TNC undertaking — we often convened stakeholder groups to conduct the assessments. Did that inclusiveness affect the kind of assessments that were produced and how they were used?
Craig Groves: The majority of early ecoregional planning efforts were primarily completed by Conservancy staff in collaboration with Natural Heritage Programs. Some state programs were quite concerned with making these efforts more public and, in some cases, sharing our land protection priorities. Although the Conservation Committee and Conservation by Design clearly intended to galvanize the entire conservation community of public and NGO parties to focus conservation efforts on the portfolios that emerged from ecoregional planning, that was not always the case — and there were many missed opportunities for broader engagement in the early years. The Sonoran Desert Ecoregional Plan, a bi-national effort with Mexico, was one of the first ecoregional assessments to be conducted in a very public manner.
Any culture clashes between all these stakeholders?
Craig Groves: Ironically, some of the earliest culture clashes the ecoregional assessments provoked were between TNC programs trying to work together across state lines, a practice that was largely new at the time and revealed the differing conservation philosophies and approaches among different state programs. In the long run, ecoregional assessment work had the really significant secondary benefit of getting Conservancy programs to work together more effectively.
What impacts did the ecoregional approach have that you didn’t originally anticipate?
Robin Cox: We didn’t anticipate the tremendous impact ecoregional assessments would have on the broader land trust community. Today, many local and regional land trusts that once decided where to work primarily on the basis of opportunity now use ecoregional assessments to shape decisions on where to invest their funds. Our conservation planning approach has been replicated around the world — by global, regional and local conservation entities. They will carry on this work as we pursue new directions. I think that the contagion of ecoregional assessments was largely a result of successful stakeholder engagement in the process and the underlying logic of striving for representation at a geographic scale that everyone could grasp. It didn’t hurt that major donors like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation encouraged (and funded) partners to incorporate this logic into their priority-setting. I doubt that many of us anticipated the ultimate reach of ecoregional assessments across the global conservation community.
What’s the importance of having wall-to-wall conservation priority areas identified for the whole country?
Craig Groves: First and foremost, they provide a conservation vision for the United States. It is probably something that government should have done, but I’m proud of the fact that the Conservancy has ably filled this void. For example, the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System are both considering ideas for expansion. Having this sort of data available provides these and other agencies (both state and federal), as well as NGOs some critical information on where there are important conservation gaps that they could consider filling. It’s important from a development perspective, too — providing valuable information to industry and business that should help in avoiding or minimizing degradation of these priority areas.
But the most visible use has been by state wildlife agencies, all of which have completed state wildlife action plans in the last few years. Many of these plans were driven in major ways by the data, maps and analyses that TNC put together in its ecoregional assessments. And the general methods that the state wildlife agencies used in preparing these plans were based in part on methods that TNC and other organizations have used in preparing ecoregional assessments and other types of systematic conservation plans.
Robin Cox: One of my favorite stories about agencies and our assessments is one often told by Steve McCormick. He would describe numerous occasions when he would walk into meetings with state and federal public agency officials, hoping to convince them to partner with us on projects identified through ecoregional assessments — and there, already on the walls of their offices, would be our poster size portfolio maps. The agencies already “owned” these maps because their staff had given us much of the underlying data and expert information. In California, our state, these early ecoregional assessments were the “only statewide vision in town” — and they gave us tremendous stature.
You were both involved in writing the original handbook for ecoregional assessments. If you knew then what you now know about conservation planning, how would you have altered that guidance?
Craig Groves: Pretty dramatically in a lot of ways; I’ll highlight three. First, I would have placed a lot more emphasis on planning in freshwater and marine environments, as the first edition was very terrestrially oriented. Second, if we accept that biodiversity has three components of structure, function, and composition, I’d give a great deal more attention to biodiversity function and ecosystem services in the planning process. Finally, we never thought much about strategy in ecoregional planning, and that was a mistake (actually, a very senior TNC manager discouraged us from bringing strategic thinking into ecoregional planning). Today, we realize that spatial planning such as ecoregional assessments and strategic planning need to be one and the same process.
Robin Cox: I would have advised teams to be more flexible in their decision rules to accommodate the conservation context of the region. For example, in ecoregions primarily in public ownership, we often excluded large and reasonably intact public lands from our portfolios — not because they lacked biodiversity values, but because they were slightly less target-rich than someplace else, or because they didn’t form the most efficient spatial configurations according to MARXAN decision rules. Looking back, I would suggest that teams take a more pragmatic view and make public lands part of our ecoregional conservation networks. Given the challenges of expanding the conservation lands network, making management of public lands more sustainable is a more cost-effective strategy than looking elsewhere for a more ideal configuration. It’s also hard to get buy-in from public partners when we exclude their lands from the equation.
TNC’s conservation planning is evolving to better address climate change, connectivity, ecosystem services, and multi-objective planning that shows how we can simultaneously meet the needs of conservation and human development. How would those approaches change these maps?
Craig Groves: Years ago, ecologist Jim Brown spoke about the importance of conservation in the “semi-natural matrix,” meaning the lands and waters between conservation areas that still contain some natural land cover. I think the biggest difference between the current map and a map that would be drawn from today’s approaches would be an emphasis on lands and waters in this matrix — for ecosystem services and functions, for critical connectivity areas, or for areas that are critical to meeting development needs such as have been identified in marine spatial planning exercises or Development by Design energy mitigation assessments.  

*Interview by Joe Fargione, lead scientist, North America Region, The Nature Conservancy.

Image credit: valakirka/Flickr