Richard A. Fuller et al. make a provocative proposal in a recent latter to Nature. Working with a data set of the protected areas of Australia, the authors make a quantitative assessment of each preserve’s contribution to conserving vegetation types in the country. They then divide that contribution by the cost of continuing to protect the land (its estimated market value plus management costs), thereby deriving a benefit-cost ratio for each property. Fuller and his team find that about 1% of Australia’s protected areas are not pulling their weight in terms of conserving diversity, and propose that selling these lands (the local term of art is “degazettement”) and using the funds to acquire alternative lands leads to an overall increase in protection with no net impact on public spending.
There are certainly points to argue with in this work. The authors use conservation of vegetation types as their benefit measure, adjusted for the amount of each type found in the protected area and the percentage of each type remaining countrywide since the arrival of Europeans in the mid-eighteenth century. Another measure might yield different results. There are some benefits to protection—a visually attractive viewshed, for instance—that don’t appear to fit into this analysis. Along the same lines of thought, the importance of keystone or indicator species is discounted. If old-growth temperate rain forest is preserved specifically to protect Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis), there may be knock-on effects. Also, the work assumes that protection can be acquired at market rates, either through outright land purchase or through conservation easements.
Nevertheless, I think it’s a good step toward quantifying the tradeoffs that are an inevitable part of conservation. It’s also worth noting that nearly all the benefit gains are achieved by degazetting the “dogs,” the bottom 1%. Beyond that, the bang (as measured by number of vegetation types protected) doesn’t increase.
Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government is under pressure from the State of Wyoming over two parcels of state-owned land adjacent to Grand Teton National Park, as Bob Beck reports. The high-value properties are held by the state in order to produce revenue, but the lands are yielding little, due to federal restrictions on their use. Wyoming is looking to exchange the land for other lots that can be developed, say for coal mining.