An increasingly popular strategy for biodiversity conservation compares the benefits from intact land to the alternative benefits from land conversion (to non-conservation uses such as logging). Benefits from intact land, referred to as “ecosystem services”, include clean water and carbon sequestration. If these benefits are large, planners will give preference to conservation over conversion.

We have an apparent “win-win” based on conservation of both the ecosystem services and the local biodiversity. However, my work in the Bateman’s Bay region of NSW shows that this strategy may work against successful conservation of regional-scale biodiversity. This finding calls for modified regional planning methods that take into account biodiversity benefits at both local and regional scales.

One of the greatest issues in biodiversity conservation today is how we select areas for conservation. We now have robust methods that use our natural history collections data to help create a biodiversity description for a region. This information enables us to identify priority protected areas that collectively represent the region’s biodiversity.

The key to doing this planning effectively was first demonstrated in several case studies in the Bateman’s Bay region of NSW more about 20 years ago. In this region, we identified a set of areas that complement each other in their contributions to representation of regional biodiversity. But rather than just one set of areas, we identify several combinations of areas that would conserve a very similar level of regional biodiversity. We take advantage of this flexibility in order to find solutions that minimise conflict with other needs of society (such as provision of timber or agricultural products).

The early Bateman’s Bay studies also illustrated how “ecosystem services” – the benefits, such as clean water and carbon sequestration, that humans get from natural ecosystems could strengthen the case for conservation of an area.

At present, conservation for ecosystem services is in danger of dominating conservation planning. In order to show why this could be dangerous for regional biodiversity conservation, I re-visited the Bateman’s Bay region of NSW. My new analyses showed that, even when places conserved for ecosystem services also conserve the local biodiversity, we may not be able to find a set of conserved areas that is representative of regional biodiversity.

The problem is that the areas conserved based on high ecosystem services all may be similar in their biodiversity. If the number of areas conserved based on ecosystems services is not too large, we still have the flexibility to select other, additional, areas to complement these, and achieve a representative set. But, if the number of areas selected based on ecosystems services becomes too large, we lose this flexibility. The result is that our capacity to conserve regional biodiversity collapses.

The Convention on Biological Diversity has set targets for countries, including a percentage of land to be conserved for both biodiversity and ecosystem services. There is a danger that targets will be addressed by protecting areas offering high ecosystem services. The associated protection of local biodiversity may look good, but the country in fact may do a poor job in conserving regional biodiversity.

Fortunately, this problem often can be avoided. We can reduce our reliance on local ecosystem services for planning and give more attention to representation of regional biodiversity, as long as good information on regional biodiversity patterns is available. This is where museum collections can help.

Dr Dan Faith
Principal Research Scientist

More information:
Faith, D. P. (2014) Ecosystem services can promote conservation over conversion and protect local biodiversity, but these local win-wins can be a regional disaster. Australian Zoologist, Online: 1-10. DOI 10.7882/AZ.2014.031.

This paper arose from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW’s Dangerous Ideas Forum, held at the Australian Museum. The Forum welcomed presentations on “dangerous ideas”. The ideas may be dangerous to zoology and conservation, or the ideas may be dangerous because they are counterintuitive and challenge the status quo.