The Conservation Planning Group Applied conservation research

The Conservation Planning Group

Conservation impact evaluation

The primary motivation for most conservation scientists is to make a positive difference to outcomes for biodiversity and people. Perhaps surprisingly, much of the science and policy for conservation does not address this goal directly. This mismatch entails serious risks: we might expand protected area systems and even increase their representation of species and ecosystems without protecting the biodiversity most in need of protection, and without benefiting people who are highly dependent on natural resources. The field of impact evaluation arose in medicine, education, and development aid, and has evolved robust methods to measure how much difference interventions have made and could make in the future. This research theme builds on progress in these fields and applies rigorous evaluation techniques to marine, freshwater, and terrestrial conservation.

Building an evidence base for marine conservation: Evaluating the ecological and social impacts of MPAs

Research led by Dr Georgina Gurney

Image previewMarine protected areas are expanding rapidly, partly motivated by high-level policy commitments. Many important decisions are made each year about the location, configuration and management of MPAs. These decisions will strongly influence the future of marine biodiversity, ecosystem services, and related livelihoods. However, established and proposed MPAs are seldom evaluated for their impact. Evaluation of MPA impact involves comparing changes in social or ecological characteristics attributable to MPAs with changes expected in the counterfactual situation without MPAs. Evaluating impact is critical for building a strong evidence base for the design and management of MPAs, and includes predicting the impact of future potential management. Impact evaluation is also central to developing meaningful targets and measures of progress for marine conservation, extending policy beyond simplistic measures of success related to the extent of MPAs or representation of marine regions. This project explores ways in which impact evaluation can inform policy.

Modelling the conservation impact of changing policy for native vegetation in Queensland

Research led by Stephanie Hernandez

Image previewHabitat loss as a result of land clearing is a significant driver of species extinction. The policies affecting clearing are therefore important tools to mitigate loss of biodiversity. Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act, 1999 (the Act) has been important in controlling vegetation loss. In 2013, however, the Newman Government, with its election promise to develop the North, amended the Act. The amendments appeared intended to permit previously regulated or protected native vegetation to be cleared for agricultural and pastoral production. We explored the implications of the amended Act on vegetation communities using spatially explicit modelling. Using guidelines from pre- and post-2013, we created maps of vegetation communities ‘available for clearing’. We found that the Act, as current, allows for greater potential clearing along Queensland’s eastern periphery. Specifically, over 9 million ha of remnant vegetation on arable soils is now available for clearing. More subtle changes to the clearing guidelines, such as changes to riparian buffer zones, have also reduced previously protected vegetation. Spatially explicit evaluation of policy is necessary to assess the outcomes of legislative changes on biodiversity, and the post-2013 changes have serious implications that subsequent State Governments must understand.

Poverty and protected areas: An evaluation of a marine integrated conservation and development project in Indonesia 

Research led by Dr Georgina Gurney

IMGP0132Protected areas are currently the primary strategy employed worldwide to maintain ecosystem services and mitigate biodiversity loss. Despite the prevalence and planned expansion of protected areas, the impact of this conservation tool on human communities remains hotly contested in conservation policy. The social impacts of protected areas are poorly understood largely because previous evaluations have tended to focus on one or very few outcomes, and few have had the requisite data to assess causal effects (i.e.­ longitudinal data for protected and control sites). In this project, we evaluated the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs) that were specifically designed to achieve the dual goals of conservation and poverty alleviation (hereafter “integrated MPAs”), on three key domains of poverty (security, opportunity and empowerment) in eight villages in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Using social data for villages with and without integrated MPAs from pre-, mid- and post-the five-year implementation period of the integrated MPAs, we found that the integrated MPAs appeared to contribute to poverty alleviation. Positive impacts spanned all three poverty domains, but within each domain the magnitude of the effects and timescales over which they manifested were mixed. Importantly, positive impacts appeared to occur mostly during the implementation period, after which integrated MPA activities all but ceased and reductions in poverty did not continue to accrue. This finding questions the efficiency of the short-term approach taken in many international donor-assisted protected area projects that integrate development and conservation, which are often designed with the expectation that project activities will be sustained and related benefits will continue to accumulate after external support is terminated.

How to make a difference in Danajon Bank, Philippines: Using Theory of Change to increase conservation impact 

Research led by Jeremy Horowitz


Danajon Bank is the only double barrier reef in the Philippines, and one of six in the world. The Danajon Bank has significant conservation values and faces diverse threats from human activities, both in the marine environment and in nearby catchments that flow into the area. Theory of Change (ToC) is a theoretical model of causal chains which link interventions to the results they are meant to produce.  This project utilizes ToC to visualize how multiple pressures affect coral cover in Danajon Bank, Philippines.  In addition, expert opinion will be used to quantify relative pressures to determine which are having the greatest negative effect on coral cover in the absence of conservation strategies.  The existing conservation strategies will then be added to the ToC model to represent the situation in Danajon Bank.  Expert opinion will again be used to identify how the current suite of conservation strategies can be modified to increase conservation impact.  This project will be the first of its kind to identify the most serious pressures affecting coral cover, and how to effectively mitigate those pressures to make a positive difference in Danajon Bank.

Effectiveness of MPA placement: an analysis of best practices for placement with a focus on the influence of governance

Research led by Meira Mizrahi

Establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) is one of the most widely accepted methods of marine management. While total MPA coverage is increasing, the conservation value of MPAs remains uncertain. Species extinction is increasing, and avoided loss of biodiversity due to protection remains low. One possible reason for this relates to the fact that not all MPAs are placed in areas where they can most positively impact conservation objectives. Often, protected areas are residual and placed in areas where they least interfere with extractive activities, which, in effect, provide the least advantage to conservation. Poorly placed MPAs may also prohibit establishment of additional MPAs in areas where threats can be abated, if an acceptable limit of protected area extent has been reached. Therefore, although there is geographic progress towards increased coverage of protected areas, little is known concerning conservation effectiveness in relation to MPA placement. Current MPA knowledge lacks an interdisciplinary perspective that examines effective placement of MPAs from a multidimensional perspective, identifying the influence that aspects of governance have on placement choice. This project explores the indicators that define effective placement, and what marine areas exist in which there is high overlap of these indicators. These areas will be suggestive of ‘best practice’ placement of MPAs that best support the conservation of biodiversity, fisheries and the livelihoods that marine ecosystems support.


“Australia’s new marine protected areas: why they won’t work” The Conversation, 17 January 2013

“We have more parks than ever, so why is wildlife still vanishing?” The Conversation, 12 November 2014

Giant Kimberley marine park: political stunt or valuable conservation tool? ABC News, 19 March 2016


Gurney, G.G., J. Cinner, N. Ban, R. Pressey, R. Pollnac, S. Campbell, S. Tasidjawa and F. Setiawan. 2014. Poverty and protected areas: An evaluation of a marine integrated conservation and development project in Indonesia. Global Environmental Change 26: 98-107. The final accepted version of the manuscript is freely available here.

Gurney, G.G., Pressey, R.L., Cinner, J.E., Pollnac, R., Campbell, S.J., 2015. Integrated conservation and development: evaluating a community-based marine protected area project for equality of socioeconomic impacts. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 370, 20140277.

Pressey, R.L., Visconti, P., Ferraro, P.J., 2015. Making parks make a difference: poor alignment of policy, planning and management with protected-area impact, and ways forward. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 370, 20140280.

THEME ISSUE ON PROTECTED-AREA IMPACT: Measuring the difference made by protected areas: methods, applications and implications for policy and practice, edited by Robert L. Pressey and Paul J. Ferraro. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B volume 370, issue 1681


Georgina Gurney

Georgina Gurney, James Cook University

Bob Pressey

Bob Pressey, James Cook University

Jeremy Horowitz

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About Us
We are a multidisciplinary group of researchers at James Cook University, interested in all aspects of conservation planning and led by Prof. Bob Pressey. We are based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the College of Marine & Environmental Sciences, the College of Business, Law & Governance, and the Cairns Institute. We collaborate widely with conservation biologists and practitioners worldwide. 

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