A lot of variables come into play when selecting a site for environmental conservation, such as wildlife needs, species and vegetation uniqueness, and costs to the government or community.
When faced with a choice, University of Illinois researchers found that society and the environment can be better off if conservation agents choose sites closer to people because people are more willing to financially support something close to them.
In their study, Environmental Economist Amy Ando and her graduate student Payal Shah developed strategies for land conservation decisions that provide amenities such as song birds, prairie grasses, and other features of the natural landscape that people enjoy. Their work considered conventional conservation-planning concerns like variation among sites in their ecological richness and sensitivity of some ecological functions to habitat fragmentation. Their work also pushed research on conservation preserve design forward by including factors such as the distance between the conservation area and concentrations of human population in the landscape.
"There's an inclination in the conservation community to target conservation activities at the points of the highest ecological value, like the hot spots where there's lots of biodiversity," explains Ando. "Depending on how unique and critical those areas of ecological importance are, our analysis shows that if there are places of somewhat lower ecological value that are closer to people, it can be worth shifting a little bit away from the site of highest ecological value to be near human populations because then you get more human value of the things that you've protected."
Ando and Shah's study entitled "Demand-Side Factors in Optimal Land Conservation Choice" will appear in a special issue of the journal Resources and Energy Economics. There's a tension between biological conservationists and economists. The paper is an effort to strike a balance between setting aside land according to natural science objectives and what might be more economically pragmatic.
"What our paper does is to try to address that tension very directly," Ando adds. "Suppose you're a wildlife manager and your goal is to maximize the production of water fowl. You are working with a natural production function that has to do with where the lands are and how fragmented the network is. But you're going to be able to raise more money if conservation lands are near where people are, because people are more likely to want to pay for conservation if it's close to them."