Areas of land and water can be selected to achieve rather narrow goals, such as the protection of a single population of a rare plant species, or they can be selected to achieve a broad set of goals. Opportunities for setting aside lands and waters for conservation are limited and, as the human population increases, will become even more limited. Hence, planners must clearly articulate and integrate conservation goals to guide projects toward successful implementation. These goals guide what data need to be collected and also determine the relative costs and benefits of protecting any sites.

There is an increasingly urgent need to prioritize lands based on multiple values. This does not mean that single-purpose sites should not ever be selected – they are often needed to protect the rarest species or features, for instance – but planners should attempt to achieve multiple compatible goals with the protection of a site or suite of sites whenever feasible.

For example, a large working ranch might be protected in order to maintain rural lifestyles, limit urban or exurban sprawl, and to provide a scenic landscape. However, that same ranch can also meet a variety of other goals. Hunting leases on portions of the property can provide opportunities for hunters and extra income for the landowner. If its owners manage the ranch to prevent over-grazing, maintain native species, and reduce the proliferation of non-native species, it can serve a variety of biodiversity conservation goals, sometimes as well as formally designated conservation areas. Indeed, some imperiled native species, such as the crested caracara in Florida (Morrison and Humphrey 2002), prefer managed rangeland to native grassland. If situated appropriately in the landscape and connected by habitat corridors, many areas of open space, including rangeland, farmland, and managed forests, can maintain populations of large mammals and other wide-ranging species that generally disappear from urbanized landscapes.

Every conservation group, land trust, or other entity that acquires or manages land should have clearly stated organizational goals describing what it wants to accomplish with its land conservation program. Private organizations and individuals may choose to set their goals independently and privately. For example, the goals of a non-governmental organization (NGO) devoted to land protection may be set by its board of directors and/or by senior administrative and scientific staff. 

By contrast, public agencies generally enlist public involvement in goal-setting -- in fact, laws may require such a process. Stakeholders representing various interests (e.g., ranchers, loggers, farmers, local businesses, environmental groups) may be invited to workshops to help develop a “vision” for the planning area. Such workshops may include presentations of scientific data and associated maps. The conservation planning exercise for the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan, which was scientifically rigorous, interdisciplinary, and involved local communities and industries throughout the planning process, offers a good example of the visioning process. A noteworthy participatory project in the southwestern U.S. is the Malpai Borderlands Group, which fosters land restoration and conservation, endangered species habitat protection, and cost-sharing range and ranch improvement. 

One of the most important points about goal-setting is to make goals as explicit as possible. This means setting measurable, quantitative objectives, so that you have a basis for measuring progress toward your goals and, conversely, to identify implementation gaps that need to be filled. Goals for land conservation have sometimes been measured in acres, for example “protect 10,000 additional acres of open space in the county by the year 2010.” Much more meaningful, however, are functional goals such as:

  1. Create a trail system that will provide for the dispersed recreational needs of county residents and visitors;
  2. Protect lands of sufficient size, quality, and connectivity to maintain viable populations of all species native to the county – with the exception of some very wide-ranging species (e.g., large carnivores), which will require multi-county and inter-regional planning to conserve in the long term;
  3. Create and enforce zoning rules and foster tax incentives that maintain rural lands in low-density housing, while encouraging high-density development in appropriate areas surrounding urban cores;
  4. Promote public education to increase awareness of, and appreciation for, natural and semi-natural ecosystems and their preservation.

Given these general goals, specific measurable objectives for accomplishing them can be established, such as:

  1. Complete the trail system from Site X to Site Y, along with an interpretive guide,  by the year 2010;
  2. Complete a county-wide natural areas inventory by year 2008 and prioritize areas for fee acquisition or other protection (e.g., conservation easements) by 2009;
  3. After completing a conservation areas design as specified in step 2, begin acquisition of priority conservation areas and identify and map areas to maintain as buffer zones and corridors, through specific easements and zoning regulations, by 2010;
  4. Create and implement a public education program, beginning with the hiring of an environmental education director and a coordinator of volunteers by 2009.

Many land trusts and conservation groups have mission statements with accompanying goals and objectives, although not all are stated in measurable, quantitative terms. The development of measurable goals, objectives, and performance standards are crucial to effective land conservation.

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