Evaluating and prioritising community-based biodiversity conservation projects
Vertebrate pests are an ever-present threat to native biodiversity, and managing pest impacts is time-consuming and costly. It is therefore important that pest control is wisely targeted to get the best possible outcome from limited conservation budgets.
Tools that formally evaluate the costs and benefits of environmental projects and allow them to be compared and ranked are used by management agencies such as the Department of Conservation, but rarely by community-based organisations (CBOs) to plan, evaluate or prioritise their work. Using two such existing tools, Les McNamara and Chris Jones worked with Marie Haley and her colleagues at the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust to evaluate and prioritise a set of existing community-led species conservation projects from the perspective of potential tool users in CBOs.
INFFER (The Investment Framework for Environmental Resources) and PPP (Project Prioritization Protocol) evaluate projects using techniques based on ‘Benefit Cost Analysis’ (BCA). Many people are uncomfortable linking economics with conservation, but when organisations make big investments using public money, there is a strong case for documenting thoroughly how decisions are made, what is planned and why, and what might go wrong. For a funding body, it helps if the benefits and costs of different projects can be compared to make sure they get the best return on their investment.
Both INFFER and PPP require that users set clear management outcomes, or ‘SMART’ targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound), for their projects, and both tools require estimates of project costs, experts’ or managers’ assessments of the likelihood that a project will succeed, and estimates of the likely effects of a successful project on the species the project aims to protect. INFFER requires that users document and quantify a wide range of factors that may affect project success, e.g. the monetary value of the asset and the effects of a range of social, economic and environmental factors. To help prioritisation decisions, PPP uses a weighting factor in the evaluation based on the ‘taxonomic distinctiveness’ of the species likely to be protected by the project. INFFER also seeks other information that can help the user understand where there are knowledge gaps and what spin-off benefits and impacts there might be.
Les and his colleagues identified several challenges to applying these tools to small-scale community-led projects. One of the biggest was finding a consistent way of valuing the species, subspecies or populations being protected. INFFER uses a scoring approach that combines environmental, social and economic values associated with the ‘asset’ into a single value between 0 and 100, whereas the PPP distinctiveness measure is less subjective, but unlikely to be relevant outside of central or regional government agencies charged with maintaining native biodiversity.
Although the tools indicated that none of the projects examined were attractive in purely economic terms, they don’t account for the many accessory benefits derived from community-led conservation projects where economics are important, but not the sole driver of decisions. For example, many projects on Banks Peninsula are initiated by landholders and supported by the community because people feel a strong bond with the species being eliminated by pests in their local area, not because of national priorities, threat status or the ecosystem services the at-risk species provides (e.g. pollination and seed dispersal). Also, such projects often receive funding because of a desire to build stronger links between government agencies and the community, to foster a conservation ethic, and to educate people about biodiversity.
The main benefit for CBOs from these tools was that they provide a structured way to compare the relative cost-effectiveness of projects. They also help users to structure projects, set long-term targets, assess risks and measure the efficiency of projects. Unless funding agencies demand more detailed and consistent information about prospective and ongoing projects, however, the complexity of the tools tested means that they are unlikely to be used widely by CBOs. For greater uptake, the tools may need to be redesigned so that they are more appealing to non-experts, and take into account spin-off benefits and values that are difficult if not impossible to quantify using current approaches. Such re-designed tools could be of great value to community groups planning or contributing to Predator-Free New Zealand initiatives.
The work is funded by a Landcare Research Senior Research Fellowship and by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (contract C09X0503).