The Art (and Science) of Brokering Deals between Conservation and Use


Like most conservation scientists, our career choices were motivated by a strong desire to save the world. Reflecting back on our academic training, we realize that we were taught a great deal about the natural world but not much about how to save it. The natural and physical sciences curricula we were exposed to in academia provided little guidance for using scientific knowledge to influence natural resource or biodiversity management policies and plans.

After two decades of work in applied conservation, we have learned a poignant lesson we feel compelled to share: getting conservation done involves brokering deals. And to successfully negotiate a good conservation deal, you must craft a solution that works not just for you, but for the other party as well.

For example, in the 1980s the conservation community had dug in its heels to oppose a proposal to build a massive new dam called Two Forks in the upper South Platte River drainage upstream of Denver, Colorado. The dam fighters built their case on the things that would be lost—a spectacular mountain stream and canyon, a blue ribbon trout fishery. Their cause appeared hopeless in the face of tremendous political and financial firepower wielded by vested interests wanting to build the dam, a strong prevailing philosophy that Denver's population growth would be good for the economy, and the realization that water was key to that growth. A small band of environmental scientists with hydrologic modeling skills took a different tack, however. They obtained a copy of the Denver Water Board's computerized water supply model and began investigating alternative ways of meeting Denver's water needs. Their articulation of an alternate solution to the city's problems, involving water conservation and improved management of existing water infrastructure, helped tip the scales against Two Forks. The resultant deal provided the citizens of Denver a few more decades of water security while negating the need for a dam. A serious conservation threat was averted.

This story illustrates the powerful influence that scientists gain when they shift from a defensive to a leadership, solution-oriented role. We believe that crafting biodiversity conservation solutions is at the heart of the Society for Conservation Biology's mission: “… to help develop the scientific and technical means[our emphasis] for the protection, maintenance, and restoration of life on this planet — its species, its ecological and evolutionary processes, and its particular and total environment.”

By any measure of biodiversity trends, our community of conservation scientists is not adequately meeting the challenges of our mission to protect the life of this planet. We attribute this to three shortcomings: (1) too few conservation scientists perceive their conservation efforts as deal making, which limits their abilities to get their ideas and recommendations implemented; (2) too few conservation scientists are actively engaged in designing resource management solutions (i.e., deal making); and (3) often those involved in negotiating deals are not adequately articulating what is ecologically desirable or acceptable and how it can be achieved.

Many conservation scientists bristle at the suggestion that their altruistic endeavors could be characterized as deal making. But conservation involves all of the key elements of a deal: competing individual or societal values about resources, negotiations, trade-offs, risks, and pay-offs. We suspect that many of our colleagues are inhibited by a perception that a deal is always final and immutable (“a deal is a deal”). This finality runs counter to our training as scientists; we know our knowledge is imperfect and that nature is full of surprises, so how could we ever cut a deal that provides us certainty that we are not jeopardizing the viability of the biodiversity at stake?

Adaptive management provides a way out of this conundrum of scientific uncertainty, and it should be at the heart of a lot more conservation deals. When driven by scientifically credible research and monitoring, it offers the potential for scientists, resource users, and society at large to gain better knowledge about the levels and types of long-term resource use that could be compatible with biodiversity conservation. The potential benefits of adaptive management are so important to biodiversity conservation that scientists should be willing to make a deal to get it. Why, then, hasn't adaptive management gained more widespread acceptance and application in resource management?

A big reason, we believe, is that adaptive management seldom gets out of the starting gate because its advocates are not constructing deals that give resource users what they want. It is critically important to recognize that most resource users have an emotional need for certainty in meeting their needs that runs as deep as our desire to be assured that we are not placing biodiversity at risk. Resource users commonly perceive an adaptive management proposal as a postponement of firm decisions, posing too much uncertainty to their ability to continue to use resources. To gain the ability to practice adaptive management, scientists and managers must offer something substantial in return.

A good conservation deal must offer affected resource users an acceptable degree of certainty for the immediate future, or at least an agreeable amount of compensation to offset the uncertainty or loss of resource use, to facilitate the transition into a long-term adaptive management process. In constructing such a deal, conservation scientists should recognize that the duration of certainty is often highly valued by resource users. Being able to continue the pursuit of a livelihood or having adequate time to make adjustments and plan for the future are precious commodities that can be traded in many conservation deals. The duration of certainty is so highly valued that resource users commonly trade off longer-term certainty and economic value for shorter-term certainty. This point is well illustrated by our Two Forks Dam story: a few decades of certainty in water supply was a better deal than the longer-term certainty offered by the dam with its attendant environmental degradation.

Many of our colleagues have argued that designing and advocating solutions to resource management conflicts—deal making—is not the role of conservation scientists; rather, we should objectively assess a range of available options and communicate the likely ecological consequences associated with each. We hope this philosophical position will quickly become a minority, if not obsolete, opinion. It assumes that nonscientists will be able to design management options or solutions that adequately conserve biodiversity and/or that the range of options presented will include one or more ecologically compatible options. We have seen abundant evidence to the contrary, including many instances in which resource managers with the best intentions were unable to design appropriate solutions. We should not assume that water managers know how much water to leave in the stream to sustain aquatic diversity, that timber managers know how to harvest trees while sustaining forest-dwelling biota, or that land developers know how much to leave undeveloped in a habitat conservation plan. The willingness of resource managers to seek ecologically compatible means of resource harvest can greatly facilitate the design of appropriate solutions, but most resource managers and land-use planners need considerable guidance to develop ecological objectives and craft management approaches to attain those objectives. We must always remember that their constituency is the resource users, whereas ours is biodiversity.

Crafting appropriate solutions requires a good deal of knowledge about the mechanics, and even the economics, of resource extraction or use (as with the Two Forks Dam). Interdisciplinary teams of scientists and managers could provide the breadth of knowledge necessary to craft solutions, but scientists and managers too often fail to communicate adequately. Our observations suggest that if conservation scientists are well versed in resource management approaches and policies, they are far better able to communicate effectively with managers.

Many talented conservation scientists possess such multidisciplinary knowledge and put it to good use. But reversing biodiversity declines requires legions of their ilk. Conservation biologists will need to cross-train or educate themselves. University programs in conservation biology will need to foster cross-disciplinary training, such as encouraging student aquatic ecologists to learn about water management or wildlife ecologists to learn about range management or village-level economics. Biodiversity will continue to be compromised by resource development activities until more conservation biologists shift from roles akin to movie critics and become movie makers.

We implore our colleagues and recent university graduates to assume a stronger role in crafting ecologically compatible approaches in resource management. Conservation science itself will benefit greatly from this activity. We have found that engagement in real-world conservation issues puts our ecological knowledge to the test and accelerates learning. Such tests sharpen our scientific skills because we are inclined to be more rigorous when conducting experiments in the public's eye. These experiments accelerate the advancement of general ecological knowledge by forcing us to critically examine our hypotheses and assumptions. We have found that when our ecological knowledge or assumptions form the basis of a management prescription and those recommendations get implemented on the ground, we quickly learn what we were right or wrong about and what we need to know to do better.

We offer the following guidance for conservation scientists trying to influence resource management plans and policies. Learn as much as you can about the natural resource management activity most strongly influencing the biota you hope to save. Participate actively in the development of management plans and policies based upon conservation science. Recognize that the best management plans and policies, including adaptive management, will never be implemented unless resource users are offered an acceptable deal. Help construct that deal in a manner that protects or restores ecological integrity over both short and long time frames. This requires vigilance during the negotiating process, wherein good deals can be incrementally compromised; make sure that biodiversity is a winner before congratulating yourself on a deal well done. Help foster a culture of resource management that acknowledges our current shortcomings and uncertainties in knowledge, embraces the risks necessary to test our knowledge and assumptions, and invests in the learning process. If we learn fast enough, we just might save what is left of the world.