How To Prioritize Sites - Steps 1-3

Step 1: Assemble the planning team and identify and contact potential collaborators and relevant stakeholders

This step will vary tremendously based on the group setting the priorities, its status as a public or private entity, the goals of the plan, and the resources available to develop the plan. If the planning effort seeks to develop a network of open space that serves a variety of goals (e.g., recreational, scenic, economic, as well as biological) and if the process involves multiple landowners and other interests, then a fully democratic and participatory visioning approach is ideal. In contrast, if the planning effort is more directed at protecting biodiversity and serving other distinct conservation goals, a more focused team consisting of scientists and other subject-matter experts is usually preferable.

Regardless of the scenario, planners should focus on maximizing benefits relative to costs and use appropriate planning procedures (e.g., site-selection algorithms) to assure cost-efficiency. In addition, as budget allows, planners should assemble appropriate staff, including GIS analysts, biologists, sociologists, and economists to guide and conduct the analysis.

In all cases, planners should identify relevant stakeholders, to whom drafts of alternative reserve designs or open space networks should be made available for comment, early in the planning process.

Step 2: Develop, refine, and restate the goals of the planning process

Conservation goals must be articulated and integrated to guide a path toward successful implementation. The conservation goals will determine what kinds of data need to be collected to support the planning process. Setting goals will require thoughtful discussion and stakeholder consensus among those involved in the planning process (Step 1). Depending on the goals of the plan, a broader group of stakeholders beyond the planning team might be assembled to discuss the goals of the plan and determine what the general conservation targets should be – i.e., what do we want to protect with this plan? Goals should be arranged hierarchically from overarching philosophical goals to more specific goals and objectives. It is important to be consistent – never lose sight of the higher-level goals while getting tangled in the complications of implementation.

Step 3: Select specific protection or restoration features (targets) and set measurable objectives

Conservation targets follow logically and directly from the goals and objectives of the planning process, and so they vary considerably from one plan to the next. Targets for open space protection will be quite different from ones selected for biodiversity conservation, but a comprehensive plan may include both categories of goals.

For biodiversity conservation, conservation targets generally fall into three main classes:

  • Special elements – rare species (and “hotspots” where their occurrences are concentrated), watersheds with high biological values (e.g., imperiled fish stocks), rare or depleted natural communities or plant associations, sites important for the continuation of natural processes, and other sites of high biodiversity value.
  • Ecosystem types – vegetation, abiotic environmental classes, aquatic habitats, and other landscape or seascape classes that one seeks to represent in conservation areas, perhaps in proportion to their historic abundance in the landscape.
  • Focal species –wide-ranging species and others of high ecological importance or sensitivity to disturbance by humans, whose needs will help planners determine the necessary size, configuration, and management of conservation areas and the landscape or seascape as a whole.

Few conservation plans have combined all three classes of targets and their associated data in a planning effort, yet such a combination may be necessary for comprehensive conservation of biodiversity. Applying a diversity of approaches in conservation planning spreads the risk of failing in the pursuit of a single approach, like focusing only on protection of rare species occurrences.

It is necessary to specify measurable objectives (e.g., the protection of 20-50% of historical distribution) for each feature, especially if you are employing site-selection algorithms. Using a site-selection algorithm, goals can be adjusted to see how different levels influence the conservation solution. Higher-priority species, ecosystems, and other conservation features almost always warrant higher goal levels. For instance a species found only within the given planning region would typically merit a much higher level goal than a common species with a multi-state distribution.

Steps 4-6


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