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PLoS One. 2008 Jul 2;3(7):e2586. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002586.

Avoiding costly conservation mistakes: the importance of defining actions and costs in spatial priority setting.

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  • 1The Ecology Centre, School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia.



The typical mandate in conservation planning is to identify areas that represent biodiversity targets within the smallest possible area of land or sea, despite the fact that area may be a poor surrogate for the cost of many conservation actions. It is also common for priorities for conservation investment to be identified without regard to the particular conservation action that will be implemented. This demonstrates inadequate problem specification and may lead to inefficiency: the cost of alternative conservation actions can differ throughout a landscape, and may result in dissimilar conservation priorities.


We investigate the importance of formulating conservation planning problems with objectives and cost data that relate to specific conservation actions. We identify priority areas in Australia for two alternative conservation actions: land acquisition and stewardship. Our analyses show that using the cost surrogate that most closely reflects the planned conservation action can cut the cost of achieving our biodiversity goals by half. We highlight spatial differences in relative priorities for land acquisition and stewardship in Australia, and provide a simple approach for determining which action should be undertaken where.


Our study shows that a poorly posed conservation problem that fails to pre-specify the planned conservation action and incorporate cost a priori can lead to expensive mistakes. We can be more efficient in achieving conservation goals by clearly specifying our conservation objective and parameterising the problem with economic data that reflects this objective.

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