The Social Dimension of Reserve Design

The preceding description of systematic conservation planning may give the impression that reserve selection is largely a technical exercise. In fact, the final determination of what will be protected invariably entails political negotiation. Moreover, the process is a long, drawn-out affair that proceeds in a piecemeal fashion. Consider that the target of protecting 12% of Canada’s landmass was set in the 1980s and we only reached that goal in 2020.

The negotiation component of protected area planning is similar to the policy development process we discussed in Chapter 3. There are long periods without apparent change interspersed with short periods of intense activity leading to the designation of one or more new reserves. The tipping point to active planning occurs when sufficient public, local, and political support have been achieved.

There are many pathways that lead to active planning. Many initiatives involve campaigns by conservation groups to protect sites with high conservation value. These groups often spend years (sometimes decades) building public support, developing local allies, and lobbying the government to take action. The Great Bear Rainforest in BC is a recent example. Other initiatives are driven by local communities, most often in the context of Indigenous land-use planning. The Dehcho and Peel Watershed land-use plans are examples (discussed below). Many protected area initiatives are driven by government policy. The federal government’s initiative to protect 30% of Canada’s marine environment is an example. With policy-driven initiatives, gaining the support of local communities is paramount, and takes considerable time. Finally, provincial and territorial governments often advance protected areas in the context of regional planning initiatives.

In many cases, systematic conservation planning is undertaken by a government parks agency or a conservation organization well in advance of active negotiations. By grappling with trade-offs among reserve design attributes and identifying areas of greatest benefit to biodiversity these efforts establish conservation priorities. Advance planning may also identify opportunities for minimizing conflicts with other land-use objectives while still achieving conservation targets. The resulting map of conservation priorities often serves in an agenda-setting role, much the same way that area targets do.

In principle, the systematic conservation planning approach can be extended to the negotiation phase of reserve planning. But this is challenging to do in practice. The conservation experts capable of handling the technical aspects of conservation planning generally do not have the expertise needed for negotiating with stakeholders. Nor do they have the authority for making land-use decisions. Therefore, it is common for these roles to be divided between a decision-making team and a technical team. This approach can be effective if the teams are well integrated and the overall process is well structured. Unfortunately, many negotiations devolve to political power struggles, and systematic conservation planning becomes sidelined.

Recognizing the political realities of land-use planning, conservation practitioners involved in protected area negotiations should make their recommendations as meaningful and accessible as possible. This includes helping decision makers and stakeholders understand why particular areas were identified as priorities, and what specific conservation benefits they provide. Options for handling key points of conflict should also be described. This requires a deep understanding of the factors influencing the design process, which is acquired through the systematic exploration of inputs.

In summary, protected areas are established through a long-term process that proceeds in fits and starts. Systematic conservation planning provides critical input to the process, mainly by mapping conservation priorities. But there should be no expectation that conservation priorities will automatically be established as protected areas. A broad base of support must first be established, and this may take considerable time and effort. Final decision making concerning site selection is a political process. It is important to have conservation practitioners involved in the process to ensure that biodiversity outcomes are properly considered. Unfortunately, this does not always happen.

Box 8.4. Common Reserve Planning Pitfalls

1. Reserve design biases. For optimal conservation of all species, planners must guard against inadvertently biasing the reserve system in favour of certain design attributes. Common biases include emphasizing representation over function and emphasizing high-profile species over broad biodiversity.

2. Overreliance on computer software. Planning software is a tool for identifying design options and exploring trade-offs among objectives. The ecological knowledge needed for developing an effective reserve design lies with the planning team, not the software.

3. Failure to incorporate climate change. Climate change has important reserve design implications, especially with respect to connectivity, fine-filter conservation, and climate refugia. This dimension of reserve design has yet to be widely implemented (see Chapter 9).

4. Failure to consider competing values. The best reserve design is not the one that perfectly meets the needs of biodiversity. Such designs are useful as reference points but are rarely implemented because they tend to be politically infeasible. Instead, the best design is the one that delivers the greatest conservation benefit given existing social constraints. This requires an extension of the optimization process to include competing socio-economic values.

5. Becoming bogged down in detail. With the increased availability of spatial datasets and ample computing power, it can be tempting to set representation targets for an ever-increasing list of attributes. This does not come without a cost. Excessive detail can complicate and slow the design process, reduce design flexibility, and produce fragmented designs with low functional integrity. It also becomes increasingly difficult to systematically explore design options and interpret the results.

6. Ineffective communication. Protected area planning is ultimately a social process, so design recommendations must be conveyed in socially meaningful terms. A glossy map and technical description of the methodology are not enough. Decision makers and stakeholders need to understand the objectives underpinning the proposed reserve network and why the recommended design is optimal. Furthermore, because negotiations are typically site-based, the specific contributions of individual priority areas should be provided.


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