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Keywords:

  • Benefit:cost ratio;
  • conservation planning;
  • economic cost;
  • habitat protection;
  • heuristic;
  • land prices;
  • reserve selection;
  • resource allocation

Abstract

Efficient conservation planning requires knowledge about conservation targets, threats to those targets, costs of conservation and the marginal return to additional conservation efforts. Systematic conservation planning typically only takes a small piece of this complex puzzle into account. Here, we use a return-on-investment (ROI) approach to prioritise lands for conservation at the county level in the conterminous USA. Our approach accounts for species richness, county area, the proportion of species' ranges already protected, the threat of land conversion and land costs. Areas selected by a complementarity-based greedy heuristic using our full ROI approach provided greater averted species losses per dollar spent compared with areas selected by heuristics accounting for richness alone or richness and cost, and avoided acquiring lands not threatened with conversion. In contrast to traditional prioritisation approaches, our results highlight conservation bargains, opportunities to avert the threat of development and places where conservation efforts are currently lacking.