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Conservation for the Win

Daniel Simberloff

WILD HOPE: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success. Andrew Balmford. xiii + 255 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2012. $26.

These are depressing times for conservationists. Numbers of threatened and endangered species are rising, pristine ecosystems fall to “development” before our eyes, the media report a wave of damaging biological invasions, and the specters of global climate change and inexorable human population growth hover over every discussion of the prospects for biodiversity. There are isolated triumphs—species delisted under the Endangered Species Act, sites of ecological interest saved thanks to last-minute purchases by governments or NGOs, invasive species locally eradicated. But the trend is obviously in the wrong direction, and any conservation scientist can cite a litany of losses.

2012-11BrevSimberloffFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn Wild Hope, Andrew Balmford, a Cambridge University zoologist whose research is at the interface of conservation biology, economics and sociology, aims to provide grounds for cautious optimism by detailing seven cases of improvement and seeking lessons and commonalities among them that might be more widely applied. The cases are a disparate group, ranging in scale from local to regional, including examples from around the world and involving stakeholders from a wide swath of income levels, including corporations, subsistence farmers and various others of intermediate wealth.

The key feature that unifies Balmford’s examples is the need to understand conservation conflicts from the point of view of the human actors involved, then to fashion a response that engages all sides. One of the better-known examples he describes is South Africa’s Working for Water program, designed to control invasive nonnative plants such as acacias and pines. Years of pointing to the threats these interlopers posed to native plant species elicited lukewarm responses from the public and policymakers alike. The demonstration, in a nation struggling with chronic water shortage, that nonnative plants were consuming up to 7 percent of the run-off in some regions transformed the debate from one about the nebulous value of biodiversity conservation to one about how best to serve human needs by minimizing water loss. That Working for Water also provides jobs and training for thousands of people garners much additional support for the program.

Another case resting on water, although not nearly as heralded as Working for Water, is found in the village of Loma Alta, in Ecuador, on the western slopes of mountains facing the Pacific. Here the problem was that felling forest for timber and charcoal generated immediate benefits for the segment of the population doing the felling, but it had an obvious downside for the entire community: the loss of many game animals and also of fishes as some streams dried up. What was not so obvious was that the hydrological basis of the entire system was fog, which condensed on forest plants during the very long, very dry season. Destroying the forest eliminated this resource, and the landscape was transformed in many areas into vast, dusty, barren tracts that cannot support even small farms. A concerned conservation scientist showed residents of one village convincing proof of the forest–fog connection. The villagers’ communal land ownership system allowed them to set aside and secure a large section of remaining forest. Many animals and plants that would otherwise have disappeared locally are now abundant, and the village is a beacon of prosperity—in stark contrast to desolate nearby villages that have cut down all their forest.

Time and again, Balmford shows that buy-in from people who were previously conservation opponents can change a battle of winners and losers into a win-win situation. Another example is the Marine Stewardship Council, a global initiative to certify and publicize fisheries that operate sustainably—and to induce consumers to favor them. In the United States, the Safe Harbor program allows landowners to enter into agreements with the Fish and Wildlife Service that preserve their future rights to modify land if they currently maintain or improve it so that it houses federally listed endangered species. Balmford shows how implementation of this program preserved high-quality red-cockaded woodpecker habitat that landowners otherwise would have destroyed so as not to be prevented by the Endangered Species Act from using their land as they wished in the future.

Safe Harbor and the Marine Stewardship Council are prominent in conservation circles, but Balmford provides fresh insights on these groups through his probing discussions with actors on all sides of the issues, including fishermen and timber harvesters who do not get much conservation press. Less familiar to conservation cognoscenti will be the Kaziranga National Park in the Indian state of Assam, which protects highly endangered rhinoceri, and the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve, a large restored wetland that is part of an ambitious National Ecological Network in the Netherlands. Although each chapter is devoted to one of his seven focal cases, in digressions throughout the book Balmford describes aspects of many other interesting conservation projects.

Despite the optimistic tone of Wild Hope, Balmford is no Pollyanna. For every example, he is at pains to point out that the “victory” is tentative, incomplete and possibly only short-term. For instance, for the Marine Stewardship Council, it is far from clear yet whether public demand will suffice to raise the price of certified seafood to the extent that fishing sustainably can compete with environmentally devastating factory ships and huge nets and trawls that kill enormous amounts of by-catch. Balmford also notes that the world fishing fleet is much too large, and unless many ships are retired, pressures to overfish stocks will remain. He also makes clear that no silver bullet will solve specific conservation problems, and that in particular the participatory approach of getting all stakeholders to agree on a compromise solution adequate for conservation will often—always?—have to be bolstered by enforced regulation. Sometimes Balmford makes this point explicitly, as when he describes the ongoing and lethal battle fought by rangers of the Kaziranga National Park against rhino poachers. Other times, it seems implicit. For instance, would the fishermen who are meeting the criteria of the Marine Stewardship Council have been as ready to do so in the absence of increasingly long closed seasons, designated no-take reserves and the like? Nor does Balmford shy away from large global phenomena that can overwhelm even the most successful local and regional efforts. A closing chapter briefly but pointedly discusses climate change, overconsumption and overpopulation.

Finally, a complaint. One of the seven cases is the widely lauded restoration project largely funded and conducted by Alcoa in the wake of its bauxite mining in western Australia. As Balmford notes, this project has broken new and impressive ground in restoring biodiverse, globally significant plant communities, and some animals, to what would previously have been written off as a permanently ruined landscape. The project was spurred largely as a PR gesture to placate an educated, environmentally concerned citizenry. Balmford describes how it gradually became part of the local and even larger Alcoa culture, with area miners and Alcoa executives taking pride in their restoration accomplishments and interest in the underlying research. However, internationally, and including in the United States, Alcoa is far from the good environmental citizen that Balmford depicts in Western Australia. It is in fact a multinational corporation involved in many unresolved environmental disputes. It would have been useful to explore why the corporate culture that now obtains in Western Australia has not spread more widely.

Daniel Simberloff is the Nancy Gore Hunger Professor at the University of Tennessee. He conducts research on ecology and biological conservation, particularly the impacts and management of invasive introduced species.

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