Biodiversity Bargain

In a perfect world, we’d spend unlimited amounts of money to save every species. But conservation budgets are tight. To help solve this dilemma, researchers have come up with a way to identify areas that offer the most environmental bang for the buck.

Today, people often place a high priority on protecting threatened areas that harbor the most biodiversity or unique species. These strategies “ignore the economic costs of conservation,” writes John Withey of the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues. (Conservation is an independent publication of the University of Washington.) Instead, they say, agencies should figure out how they can increase their environmental return on investment, or ROI.

The team attempted such an analysis on counties in the United States. The researchers accounted for the number of terrestrial vertebrate species, cost of land, and the likelihood of development in each area, as well as existing protected areas for those species. Then they estimated each county’s environmental ROI value. For example, establishing a protected area in a county that hosts many unprotected species, is threatened with development, and has cheap land would offer a high return on investment.

The Midwest had some of the highest ROI values, as did some species-rich counties in New York. At the coasts, where land costs more, ROI was lower. If managers want to protect at least 20 percent of each species’ habitat, though, they would need to buy land in expensive areas such as the West Coast and southern Florida. The results “highlight conservation bargains, opportunities to avert the threat of development and places where conservation efforts are currently lacking,” the team writes. Roberta Kwok | 31 August 2012

Source: Withey, J.C. et al. 2012. Maximising return on conservation investment in the conterminous USA. Ecology Letters doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01847.x.

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