A surprising question

While in a meeting the other day, a colleague made a comment to me that was something to the effect of: “Can't we just assume that all the work we're doing is benefitting the environment?” I curtly responded, “No.” He replied that many of the projects we're doing have volumes of research backing up their benefits.

However, even if this was true 100 percent of the time, ecological conditions are so variable across the many landscapes where we work that such generalities cannot be applied. Even if we do see benefits, are they actually quantified and scientifically defensible or are they just anecdotal?

Here's an even simpler, but general analogy from the business world: No successful business would ever assume they are making a profit if the literature said their business should be successful. A CEO would manage the company to maximize profits. The same corporate leader and their financial managers would be constantly checking the books to validate not just the profit margin, but to also determine whether or not there were additional strategies to cut costs, increase sales and increase profits.

Problems with assumptions

Yet in the conservation world we do sometimes conduct business without checking the books. We make the assumption that if we plant trees, or get volunteers out in nature or improve the geomorphology of a stream, those activities will immediately lead to good things. Conservation education is a classic example.

For years, conservation educators assumed that bringing children, adults and other volunteers to help plant trees, remove invasive weeds, or add gravel to a stream was a good thing. Of course they had the actual projects to show for the work, but no one really asked the hard questions: 

  • What are the short- and long-term benefits of volunteers being outside doing conservation work?
  • Did it lead to a cadre of people supporting conservation? 
  • Did the kids later become environmental professionals? 

No one had any data to show. Gradually donor interests moved away from conservation education and without data to show the benefits, nonprofits, especially those that specialized in bringing volunteers to projects, struggled to bring their donors back.

Recently, some organizations, including the NFF, decided to start gathering this type of data. Again, those in the business world might think: “What would you do without financial and marketing data?” And they’d probably answer: “You would likely fail.” 

As an example, the Center for Land-Based Learning  (Winters, CA) started tracking students who participated in their restoration field days with farmers and ranchers in a program known as SLEWS (Student Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship). They not just tracked SLEWS alumni following the field days, but also as they moved into college and to careers. Some validating results came from the study carried out surveying students over 14 years of participation.

For instance, 51 percent of surveyed participants said SLEWS affected their higher education and career path. SLEWS sparked an interest in pursuing multiple agricultural and environmental career paths. One student said “SLEWS made me want to get into ecology and forestry and help out the environment…it cemented that idea of what I wanted to do in the future.”

More broadly speaking 89 percent of survey respondents said SLEWS helped them gain experience in something they would not other had the opportunity to do: “Being able to leave Oak Park or South Sac…was an eye opening experience…if it wasn’t for SLEWS I wouldn’t have gone to college and majored in biology.”

On the Angeles National Forest, the NFF started conducting pre- and post-surveys of volunteers to measure changes in a variety of conservation-based indicators to see if we could tease out changes in attitude towards, appreciation of and connection to natural areas. Those results are not yet ready, but we are actively testing our assumptions about these projects.

Another far-reaching example was Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) that multiple conservation organizations invested in starting in the 1980s. ICDPs conjectured that if community development projects near protected areas (national parks, forests, reserves) are funded and developed, they would lead to less deforestation, poaching and general degradation faced by nearby protected areas.

Deforestation and “empty forests” after local communities hunted many species to local extinction was a growing problem at the time, largely due to many parks being gazetted without proper management plans, staffing and funding to develop the parks. They were sometimes known as paper parks. The development projects were typically agricultural extension projects, often top-down and expert-driven, that introduced “better” or more intensive ways to farm.

Conservationists made two massive assumptions here:

  1. that the agricultural intensification or community development programs would work—not guaranteed given the rate of failure of development projects in South and Central America; and
  2. agricultural intensification would lead to less forest clearing since increased production would allow farms to continue cultivating the same pieces of land. Less deforestation would lead to protected areas being protected.

Not until the late 90s did anyone ask if or how the projects were successful in and of themselves, but more importantly, no one examined the assumption that community development led to reduced threats to forests either. At least not until I led a team of researchers that examined this question leading to some unexpected results, when I worked with the Biodiversity Support Program in the late 90s.

We collected quantitative and qualitative data on land use, crops yields, project information and interviews/surveys of community members in the field at two ICDP sites in Chiapas, Mexico and Northeastern Guatemala. We found that the project’s focus on farmer-to-farmer extension increased yields. Paradoxically in Guatemala, where more land was available, increased yields sometimes led to increased land clearing. This land tenure phenomenon is known as the poverty paradox and typically happens when increased yields increase family income which allows them to afford to clear and till more land.

At both sites, participation in sustainable agriculture programs generally led to more environmental consciousness, and participating farmers burned the forest less. So the programs helped to reduce the use of fire and therefore reduced the incidence of deforestation. When land tenure was more secure, however, farmers also tended to clear less. So the general assumption of ICDPs in this case was true and false and depended on multiple factors.

More details on the study can be found in the publication Maximum Yield?: Sustainable Agriculture as a Tool for Conservation.

What to do

There are many approaches to testing that are relatively easy to do. The World Wildlife Fund has multiple documents on developing conceptual models and building monitoring into everyday conservation available online in their program standards (https://goo.gl/XCzY1m). The conservation measures partnership (http://www.conservationmeasures.org/) is another great resource. Here are a few additional ideas to get you started:

  • Conceptual models. Even writing down the assumptions you're making is better than nothing. Creating models that help everyone involved in a project visualize how the system works is critical for asking assumptions about cause and effect in conservation and restoration projects.
  • Cost. Measuring outcomes costs money and often grants only include funding for implementation, not measurement. Additionally, it can also be complicated to measure results with so many confounding factors involved, and we are still learning a lot about how ecosystems work. Here are some ways to measure results without additional funding: Citizen science. Engage your local university. Incorporate measures of success into project funding.
  • Reporting. Reporting back to donors, social media and a wider audience on what you learned is a valuable exercise. Reporting doesn't have to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but could just be a blog, a newsletter article or a presentation at a conference.
  • Collaborate. Work with multiple NGOs doing similar work to share resources, results and measure success at larger scales.

As conservationists we can no longer afford to assume that all the work we do is beneficial to local ecosystems and the planet. While measuring success can be complicated or costly, it is critical work to maximize the return on investment. Conservation practitioners owe that to funders but also to the ecosystems they are trying to save. Return is more easily measured in the business world, but the more it is done in the conservation arena, the more likely projects will attain the high standards we expect for preserving the biodiversity of life.

National Forest Foundation