Study supporting multiple benefits from conservation practices gains national recognition

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL – When it comes to managing our natural resources, the environment isn’t the only thing that benefits. By blending a novel mix of ecology and economics, researchers explored the extent that valuing nature can provide broad incentives to protect it. The approach taken in the study has earned the researchers national recognition and will call attention to the work’s key points.

“There has been an expanded attention on the diverse benefits that nature provides people. It’s called ecosystem services and is a way to quantify and include these benefits in policy decisions,” said Laura Dee, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. “However, some conservation biologists have pushed back against this focus on ecosystem services, fearing that it will not lead to protection of species that provide no economic value.”

In response, Dee said. “We wanted to know if conservation decisions were based solely on optimizing ecosystem services, how much protection of biodiversity could arise?”

What their findings support is that protecting more species than are considered economically critical is optimal. Nature is complicated and the environment is changing. It is not possible to know all the roles species play in providing benefits to people, and critical species could be lost without conservation.

“Think of it this way: if you own a valuable house, and insurance for the house is cheap, it's a no brainer to buy that insurance when the risk of damages is high,” Dee said. “The framework we developed balances the currents costs of protecting species with the future risk of losing ecosystem services. In this way, we can determine the optimal number of species to protect.”

"Dee's research has important implications for states like Minnesota that are making significant investments in natural resource conservation,” said FWCB Professor and Department Head Susan Galatowitsch. “For example, using these findings to implement Minnesota's Prairie Conservation Plan may give us the best shot at hanging on to species that need our dwindling grasslands. "

The work has earned national attention from the Ecology Society of America (ESA), one of the world’s largest ecological organizations, which has awarded the study the prestigious 2018 Innovations in Sustainability Science Award. The ESA award recognizes outstanding contributions to ecology in new discoveries, teaching, sustainability, diversity, and lifelong commitment to the profession and the award will be presented during the society’s annual meeting in New Orleans in August. The Innovation in Sustainability Science Award recognizes the authors of a peer-reviewed paper published in the past five years exemplifying leading-edge work on solution pathways to sustainability challenges.

Read the full ESA release here.

The original paper that won the award can be found here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ele.12790