The discipline of systematic conservation planning began gaining popularity in the 2000s  and is now widely used to assess trade-offs between potential conservation actions. Almost two decades on it is now possible to observe the longer-term impacts of the discipline. The Great Barrier Reef Representative Areas Program and the North East New South Wales Regional Forest Agreements in Australia are considered test cases of systematic conservation planning, but their success is often taken for granted. What made these plans talking points, how transferrable are the lessons learned, and how do the perspectives of key stakeholders differ when it comes to reported outcomes?
As far as we are aware, this is the first time that evaluations of conservation plans have extended beyond the perspectives of scientists and planning personnel. We interviewed senior representatives of major stakeholder groups involved in planning negotiations, including scientists, public servants, politicians, environmental and industry representatives. 32 semi-structured interviews were undertaken, accompanied by questionnaires to query the types of outcomes interviewees had observed during and after the planning processes. We employed a framework of reporting outcomes by five types of capital (natural, social, human, institutional and financial), originally developed by Bottrill and Pressey . Qualitative coding and document analysis were used to explore themes relating to the temporality of different outcomes, the availability of monitoring and reporting evidence, and the relative role of systematic conservation planning in the broader context of natural resource planning.
We found that natural capital outcomes were less frequently reported than outcomes relating to social, financial, institutional and human capital, but were more likely to be reported in the longer term. There was broad agreement amongst stakeholders in both case studies about the importance of systematic conservation planning principles and tools in shaping the outcomes of the planning processes, but perspectives on the relative importance of the science as compared with other political, procedural or contextual factors varied widely. Interviewees reported that barriers to conducting evaluations included the loss of personnel, expertise and political will once the plan was completed, an important lesson about the narrow window of opportunity to design and implement high profile conservation programs.
These case studies offer valuable insights into the range of outcomes of highly complex conservation interventions, and why impact evaluations are so challenging to conduct in conservation.
1. Margules, C. R., and R. L. Pressey. 2000. Systematic conservation planning. Nature 405(6783):243–253.
2. Bottrill, M. C., and R. L. Pressey. 2012. The effectiveness and evaluation of conservation planning. Conservation Letters 5(6):407–420.