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Evolving our Conservation Planning

Cox, Robin 12/15/2010

The Nature Conservancy’s systematic conservation planning practices have long been a trademark of this organization and have transformed the way we set priorities and take action, locally to globally.  If you have read the May, 2010 edition of Science Chronicles entitled Re-thinking Planning, you know that a small team has been established to make recommendations for improving and evolving these practices -- to help us confront today’s conservation challenges and to position ourselves for those of the not too distant future. Known as the Planning Evolution Team (the “PET”), this group of thirteen practitioners  led by Craig Groves and Eddie Game is an interdisciplinary group of TNC staff and external colleagues.  While we run the gamut in our areas of expertise, tenure with TNC, operating units we represent, and methodological preferences, we share the desire to advance and improve our planning approaches so that:

  • New models/methods strike a balance between scientific rigor and the practicality of application in the real world of conservation,
  • They give us access and influence in markets that simultaneously offer the “paradox” of huge conservation opportunity, and the risks of compromising  ecological values at scales  we couldn’t imagine a decade ago (e.g., large‐scale infrastructure development), and
  • Our conservation planning framework offers an integrated toolbox of different approaches, tools and “applications” that matches the conservation situations in which we work.

What Have We Done?
 Since launching in March of this year, our team has completed extensive outreach to over 100 practitioners representing TNC’s range of geographies and conservation circumstances.  As you might expect, we have heard varied and sometimes opposing views regarding “what needs fixing”, including the following:

  • TNC’s conservation planning approaches are highly respected, science‐informed, flexible, and easily exported processes that give TNC our brand, credibility, and make us and our partners effective in achieving results at scale.  So, while they may warrant some tinkering, don’t fix what is not broken!
  • Our planning methods are slow, science-heavy, don’t work well across spatial scales nor for non-biodiversity objectives (e.g.  those related to people), aren’t leading to results at the scale required to meet global goals, and they don’t resonate with  senior managers.  So, revolutionize them! 
  • Our planning methods are already actively evolving; TNC teams are adapting traditional models to generate new solutions (e.g.  the Central Appalachian Integrated Landscapes Project that integrates ecoregional assessment and CAP, the Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment that better informs land use planning  “outside the ‘portfolio”), and they are experimenting with new tools or those from other disciplines  (e.g., business planning, theory of change, return on investment analyses).  So, automate and distribute these new tools and make them more accessible and user-friendly!

A few of the oft-repeated ideas focused on the issue of planning fatigue (it is rampant), the need for planning rigor but not necessarily more complexity, the importance of having interdisciplinary representation and seasoned implementers on planning teams at inception, the difficulty of  translating “laundry lists” of too many “priority” strategies (or places) into an actionable set of implementation objectives and actions.

So where are we headed from here?
Based on what we have learned to date, we have narrowed the team’s scope and are developing preliminary recommendations that will be subjected to peer review and refinement.   Last month, the PET aired generalized recommendations with over 100 coaches, other practitioners and key partners attending the 2010 Conservation Coaches Network Rally, an audience with considerable depth when it comes to conservation planning and implementation.  Several recommendations are listed below to give you a sense of the PET’s current direction:

  • Strategy selection and design need greater investment, including broader use of tools that allow comparisons among strategies (such as through return-on-investment analyses), and evaluation of future alternative scenarios under different strategies. 
  • Multi-objective planning, which includes planning for biodiversity conservation and the interests of key social, economic, and political sectors, should become a core TNC planning approach.
  • Integration of spatial (e.g., ecoregional, marine protected area planning) and strategic (e.g. CAP) planning processes in a unified planning model is needed in some situations (e.g. migratory bird conservation, regional scale CAPs)
  • Business planning and CAP are similar and overlapping planning processes that should be better integrated (View an example Business Plan).

Over the next several months, we will seek additional internal and external peer review and develop more detailed recommendations to present to the Executive Team and Conservation Leadership Team in June 2011.  Let us know your views (gently please!) and look for an update on progress in our next post-- coming soon from Gwynn Crichton.