If you think you know the answer to this question, you might want to check out a new theme issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – “Measuring the difference made by protected areas: methods, applications and implications for policy and practice”. The theme issue, with 16 papers (5 open access) can be found here.
The issue is dedicated to the idea of protected-area impact. Adapting a definition from the well-established field of program evaluation in medicine, education and development aid, impact is the difference that protected areas make to one or more intended (or unintended) outcomes, relative to the counterfactual of no intervention or a different intervention. So impact is the difference between what we see in a protected area and what we would see there if it had not been established. If the counterfactual is much worse for nature conservation, then protection has had a large impact. When it all boils down, conservation impact is the motivation for all of us being in conservation science.
So how are we doing on the impact front? The main messages include:
- The impact of existing protected-area systems on land is rather small. In terms of avoided loss of native vegetation, the most rigorous estimates indicate that more than 95% of the total extent of protected-area systems would be intact in the absence of protection (because protected areas are concentrated on land with least promise for extractive activities)
- Most policy targets and objectives for planning and management of protected areas miss the point: they are focused on measures that are not informative about impact and might even push protection still more toward places where little difference will be made.
- Management effectiveness, despite massive resources dedicated to assessments, has no known relationship to impact.
- There is a way forward, but policy-makers, planners, and managers will need to rethink their goals and objectives and direct them explicitly toward making a difference. This needs a culture change in policy and a change in direction in conservation science.
Overall, the picture is far from rosy. How much better it becomes will depend on the memories of scientists and policy-makers: what was it that motivated them to embark on careers in conservation in the first place? Yes, it was impact, so let’s lose the diversions and get back on the main road.