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Making Conservation Even Smarter: The ROI Project

Conservation is great for nature -- but what about for people? We're using science to investigate.

"We want to lead a paradigm shift in the way people think about our work."
--Timm Kroeger, Nature Conservancy environmental economist


Conservation is cool -- but how do we make sure it's really smart, too? How do we know we're getting the biggest bang for the money we spend -- not just the most benefits for nature, but for people as well?

That's what The Nature Conservancy and Resources for the Future (RFF) are teaming up to find out through the ROI ("Return on Investment") Project -- the most comprehensive assessment of conservation benefits for humans ever undertaken at any conservation non-profit.

While the Conservancy has always been a leader in measuring and monitoring the results of conservation work, the ROI Project takes that analysis to a new level – combining an economic framework and biophysical data to comprehensively account for and measure the returns from a project for both nature and people. Such benefits might include:

  • Increases in species that people value, often through viewing, hunting and fishing;
  • Cleaner water or more regular water flows;
  • Increased food production (e.g., from increased fish spawning or pollination);
  • Reductions in coastal erosion and its attendant property damages, human mortality and health impacts; and
  • Lower atmospheric carbon concentrations (from increased carbon sequestration).

"Few people think about conservation in terms of the economic benefits it provides," says Timm Kroeger, a Conservancy environmental economist who is working on the ROI Project. "But it's crucial to add this dimension to the discussion in order to make a stronger case and build a broader support base for conservation. There simply isn’t – and never will be -- enough funding for conserving nature just for its own sake."

The Results Could be Revolutionary

The ROI Project will use these case studies to develop a blueprint for accounting for conservation's full range of benefits, and use in-depth case studies of six Conservancy projects around the world -- from Canada's Great Bear Rainforest to Papua New Guinea's Kimbe Bay -- to assess what the current limitations are for the full implementation of ROI analysis.

Then, the project will share that blueprint and the lessons learned with the conservation community at large, with the goal of inspiring more organizations to incorporate economic benefits into the design and evaluation of conservation projects.

"We're trying to make the conservation community better at thinking about the economic aspect of conserving nature," says Kroeger. "And we also want to just become smarter at how we design our own projects at the Conservancy to maximize the benefits they produce."

These tasks aren't simple. Not only do they require lots of data, but new ways of thinking about how to integrate the social returns of conservation with traditional ecological evaluations. But the results could be revolutionary for conservation.

"We want to lead a paradigm shift in the way people think about our work," says Kroeger. "Our hope is that, once policymakers and citizens see the results, they will understand how important conservation can be for human well-being -- and deepen their support for what we do."

For more information about the ROI Project, contact Timm Kroeger at tkroeger@tnc.org.


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