Despite the introductory and concluding remarks in most conservation papers and funding applications, the main bottleneck for applying knowledge towards effective conservation is not our understanding of forest structures that support species diversity, required parcel sizes or connectivity. Instead, the understanding of the institutional conditions for different management solutions and the core characteristics of governance mechanisms and their feasibility constitute a genuine knowledge threshold. In this setting, the knowledge needs do not feed to the conservation science community. Neither does the conservation science community have access to the learning and innovation taking place in the policy and practice of forest management. At the same time, forest conservation science is producing a wealth of knowledge about species interactions, structural and functional connectivity, and spatial analyses of ecosystem service provision and trade-offs in the landscape. The mismatch between an understanding of governance and ecology generates unnecessary delays in knowledge diffusion to practice. Even worse, it might result in the ecological understanding produced by science never meeting the target of improving conservation.
In this conceptual paper, I position the commonly identified conservation knowledge gaps, i.e. endangered species, valuable habitats and ecosystem services, as well as their spatial constellations, against governance mechanisms. I develop the conceptualization of governance from institutional theories in literature and illustrate it with cases from published empirical analyses of forest conservation and sustainable management.
The analysis pays attention to the different functions and benefits of forests that are manifested at the landscape level as well as to formally and informally stated rights and responsibilities of actors as regards these functions and benefits. The goal of the paper is to show that the recognition of these institutions is a prerequisite for any governance solution that should change conservation policy and practice.