The Scientific Dimension of Conservation

The Evolution of Conservation Science

The take-home message of the last chapter is that conservation is a conflict-driven social and political process. But there is more to the story than just the interplay of values and political forces. This is a field where ideas and knowledge matter, influencing both the “what” and “how” of conservation (Wilson 1998). With this in mind, we now turn our attention to the role of science in conservation. We will begin by reviewing the evolution of conservation science and then consider how science is applied in practice, and by whom. Along the way, we will explore two controversial topics: the advent of “new conservation,” linked to the concept of ecosystem services, and the fine line separating conservation science and conservation advocacy.

The field of conservation science traces its origin to scientists responding to concerns about declining game species and forests in the early twentieth century (MacDowell 2012). The application of biological science to these natural resource problems led to the emergence of fish and wildlife management and forestry as distinct applied science disciplines.

As we saw in Chapter 2, public attitudes toward nature underwent a profound transformation in the 1960s and 1970s. Non-consumptive values rose to the forefront, and conservation began to mean the maintenance of biodiversity rather than the sustainable harvest of game species and forests. This shift in public values led to a schism within the scientific community, with some researchers continuing to orient toward utilitarian management objectives and others redirecting their efforts toward broader biodiversity goals. The breakaway group eventually formed its own body—the Society for Conservation Biology—and by the mid-1980s, conservation biology was established as a distinct subdiscipline of biology (Meine et al. 2006).

The objectives of conservation biology were formalized as a mission statement by the Society for Conservation Biology at its inaugural meeting in 1986: “to help develop the scientific and technical means for the protection, maintenance, and restoration of life on this planet—its species, its ecological and evolutionary processes, and its particular and total environment” (Meine et al. 2006, p. 637). This mission statement directed the field’s research agenda and provided the context for making management recommendations (Robinson 2006). Thus, from the outset, conservation biology was a normative discipline—it embraced certain values and sought to apply scientific methods to advance those values.

Early conservation biologists incorporated the conservation approaches developed by the resource management community and took the field in new directions. The initial emphasis was on species extinction, motivated in large part by demands of the US Endangered Species Act. Prominent research topics included (Soule 1986):

  • Population viability analysis and minimum viable population size
  • Conservation genetics and captive breeding
  • Habitat fragmentation and habitat restoration
  • Island biogeography and protected area design
  • Keystone species and community stability

These topics remained central to conservation biology as it matured, but the field also expanded into new areas. From its initial focus on populations, research began to address the conservation of biodiversity more broadly, especially at the landscape and regional scales. A new understanding of what conservation entailed and what was required of science also emerged. At the outset, many had assumed that policy commitments to maintain biodiversity could be taken at face value, implying that conservation was mainly a matter of “figuring out the biology.” In time, it became clear that conservation was fundamentally a social process, and that trade-offs with other land-use objectives had to be considered when crafting conservation solutions, policy commitments notwithstanding (Kareiva and Marvier 2012).

Conservation biology responded to these challenges by widening its tent, becoming ever more interdisciplinary. The initial core of researchers, whose expertise was mainly in biology and resource management, was augmented with researchers from a range of social sciences, including environmental economics, political science, environmental law, and environmental ethics. There was also increasing effort to synthesize the growing body of conservation literature into principles and application frameworks.

Ecosystem Services and “New Conservation”

The early 2000s saw the emergence of the ecosystem services concept, referred to by some proponents as “new conservation” (Daily et al. 2009). The intent was to boost the success of conservation initiatives by addressing some of the perceived shortcomings of existing approaches. Proponents argued that the benefits of conservation needed to be better quantified so they could be integrated more effectively into decision making. Also, the scope of conservation needed to be broadened to include utilitarian benefits, rather than focusing mainly on the intrinsic and intangible values of biodiversity (Turner and Daily 2008; Kareiva and Marvier 2012; Marvier 2014). Only through such efforts could the generally poor track record of earlier conservation initiatives be improved.

The National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (2003) articulated the concept in a Canadian context:

We value nature for many reasons: not only does it have aesthetic and spiritual aspects, but it also provides us with clean air and water and other ecological services on which our economy, environment and quality of life depend. These ecological services are increasingly being seen as a natural form of capital that has economic value. … That much of our natural capital—from water to trees to oil and gas deposits—is available to the public and to industry at little or no cost has led to a perception that conservation is bad for jobs and bad for the economy. … not understanding these costs and benefits is compromising our ability to make meaningful decisions about the balance between nature conservation and industrial development. (pp. xiii, 40)

The ecosystem services concept quickly gained adherents, especially after it was profiled in the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, commissioned by the UN (Reid et al. 2005). Methodologies were developed for quantifying the benefits of ecological services, and application frameworks were established (Turner and Daily 2008; Daily et al. 2009). An important feature of these efforts was that ecological benefits were all expressed in monetary terms, reflecting the economic foundations of the ecosystem services concept. Having all values expressed in the same units—dollars—facilitated cost-benefit analyses.

Box 4.1. An Ecosystem Services Success Story

An often-cited example of the potential of the ecosystem services concept involves the management of New York City’s water supply (Daily and Ellison 2002). In 1989, the city was faced with an order from the Environmental Protection Agency to build a water filtration plant for the city, with an estimated price tag of $6–8 billion. Filtration was needed because the quality of the surface water supplying 90% of the city’s needs was declining as a result of population growth and development in the surrounding watershed. Instead of building the filtration plant, planners directed $1.5 billion to a watershed conservation project. The project was a success, both in terms of maintaining water quality and avoiding the cost of filtration. As a bonus, it also helped to maintain the overall ecological integrity of the region.

The New York City watershed project was successful because there was a direct linkage between an important ecological service (water filtration) and the needs of a nearby population centre. The costs and benefits of the management options were also readily quantifiable. Applying the ecosystem services concept in more remote regions is much more challenging because the potential markets are distant and often just hypothetical. Simply extrapolating outcomes from one region to another is unlikely to provide economically meaningful results.

Following the rapid rise of the ecosystem services approach, and its adoption by many policymakers, opposition began to mount (Redford and Adams 2009; Doak et al. 2013). Many conservationists felt that the concept was being perceived as a panacea and would lead to unintended and undesirable consequences (Ostrom et al. 2007; McShane et al. 2011). There was also alarm over the “new conservation” label being used by some proponents, implying that the ecosystem services approach supplanted existing conservation approaches (McCauley 2006; Soule 2013; Miller et al. 2014).

The fundamental problem, for those opposed to the concept, was that only utilitarian values could be meaningfully expressed in monetary terms (Spangenberg and Settele 2010). Attempts to put a dollar value on the intrinsic value of nature were not compelling. They relied on unrealistic assumptions and did not provide consistent or believable results (Nunes and van den Bergh 2001; Spangenberg and Settele 2010; Chan et al. 2012).

Given the impracticability of assigning a meaningful monetary value to the intrinsic and intangible values of biodiversity, many conservationists worried that the ecosystem services approach would marginalize these values (Redford and Adams 2009; Doak et al. 2013). Indeed, the proposed frameworks clearly emphasized utilitarian outcomes such as recreation, the maintenance of water quality, carbon sequestration, pollination, and erosion control (Turner and Daily 2008; Troy and Bagstad 2009; SC 2013). Opponents saw the concept as a slippery slope ending in the commodification of nature (Gomez-Baggethun and Ruiz-Perez 2011; Turnhout et al. 2013). As we saw in Chapter 2, treating nature as a commodity has never worked out well for biodiversity.

A fundamental problem is that most commonly cited ecosystem services do not depend on a natural ecosystem. These services are so generic that they can be supplied without native species or natural ecological structures. For example, a tree plantation can supply most ecological services (e.g., erosion control, carbon storage, production of oxygen) just as well as a natural forest (Fig. 4.1; Redford and Adams 2009). What it cannot do is support the full complement of native biodiversity.

Plantation photo
Fig. 4.1. A tree plantation provides many of the same ecosystem services as a natural forest but is of much less value for maintaining biodiversity. Credit: J. Kelly.

Furthermore, not all aspects of nature are benevolent (McCauley 2006). Fires destroy timber resources, grizzly bears kill people, beavers flood roads, and so on. Yet, fires, bears, and beavers are all components of natural ecosystems. Emphasizing only the economically positive aspects of nature leads to a simplification of ecological systems, to the detriment of biodiversity overall. We have plenty of historical examples, such as the cascading ecological effects of past predator control programs (Hebblewhite et al. 2005).

Although the debate over ecosystem services continues, we are not faced with an impasse. It is not an all-or-nothing situation, but a matter of deciding how and where the concept applies. The logical home for ecosystem services in Canada is the agricultural zone and areas of high human population density. It is here that credible markets exist for services related to water quality, flood control, pollination, recreation, and so forth. And it is here, in these highly altered systems, that ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation are most clearly aligned. For example, providing incentives for reducing agricultural fertilizer and pesticide runoff can improve water quality, benefiting both humans and wild species in the region.

The prospects for applying the ecosystem services approach to Canada’s hinterlands are more limited because there are few population centres to serve as markets. For example, the extensive peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands filter vast quantities of water, but this filtering service has little economic value because there are few people to make use of it. The water simply drains untouched into Hudson Bay. There may still be a market for some non-extractive services, such as carbon storage. But, in general, the justification for maintaining the ecological integrity of remote landscapes will continue to be based mainly on intrinsic biodiversity values and not on utility values.

In conclusion, the ecosystem services concept can help advance certain aspects of conservation by drawing attention to the unrecognized economic benefits of nature. But the concept is not a substitute or alternative to biodiversity conservation. These are two parallel processes that overlap to varying degrees depending on the spatial context. There will be many cases where conserving economically important ecosystem services will benefit biodiversity. But overall, maintaining biodiversity will require conservation efforts that exceed what can be justified on purely economic grounds. Thus, conservation will continue to entail hard political choices that pit economic development against the intrinsic and intangible values of biodiversity held by a large proportion of Canadians.

Box 4.2. Conflating Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Services in Ontario

It is not uncommon to see ecosystem services advanced as a rationale for protecting biodiversity. Ontario’s biodiversity strategy (OBC 2011) provides an example:

Conserving Ontario’s biodiversity is very important because healthy ecosystems sustain healthy people and a healthy economy. We derive benefits from the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity including food, fibre and medicines, clean air and water and outdoor recreation that nourishes our physical and mental health. Ontario’s biodiversity also has inherent value and deserves to be recognized, appreciated and conserved for its own sake. (p. ii)

Though the intrinsic value of biodiversity is mentioned at the end of this statement, the main message is that we are protecting biodiversity for its utilitarian benefits. Highlighting the utilitarian benefits of conservation helps to build support and is politically appealing. However, portraying these benefits as the main objective of biodiversity conservation is misleading and can lead to unintended consequences. The provision of food, fibre, clean water, and so forth demands a different management approach than what is required for maintaining species. Therefore, it is best to advance ecosystem services and the conservation of biodiversity as parallel objectives, rather than presenting biodiversity as the means to an end.


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