A conservation plan puts science ahead of politics

This story about the Pima County Arizona conservation planning effort isn’t directly about national forests, though there should have been (and probably was) coordination with the Coronado National Forest.  And my point here isn’t about the success of a conservation plan driven by the need to protect at-risk species (arguably an ESA success story).  It’s about the role of scientists in the process (Sharon).

“County leaders stated from the outset that their primary goal was to conserve biological diversity through a scientifically defendable process, not to come up with a plan that everybody could agree on,” wrote the late urban planning specialist Judith Layzer in her 2008 book Natural Experiments, which analyzed more than a half-dozen regional land-conservation efforts.

The scientists and county staff discussed the plan in public sessions, but county officials made it clear that their work would not be derailed by complaints from developers and other critics. The scientists established standards for identifying biologically valuable lands and used computer models, observation records and the judgment of local naturalists and recognized experts to come up with a biological preserve map.

In contrast, in other multi-species plans, scientists, politicians, agency staffers, developers and moderate conservationists collectively determined which lands to save, thus bringing political and economic considerations into the science.

Looking back this spring, Huckelberry, a former county transportation chief, says he was simply applying the best practices from his previous job, highway planning, to land conservation. Typically, both a technical committee and a citizens’ committee review big road projects, he says: “The whole purpose of a technical advisory committee is not to play with the numbers, not to slant the analysis. We felt the political side could potentially be used to manipulate the scientific side, and felt that would bias the entire process.”

After the science team created a map of the proposed preserve system, a separate steering committee of 84 people, including developers, environmentalists and neighborhood leaders, haggled over its details. By then, though, the plan’s broad vision was already solidly in place.

Bringing this back to the Forest Service, this is similar to how a team of biologists developed the Lynx Conservation Assessment and Strategy, which was then followed by forest plan amendments that “haggled over the details.”  The Forest Service doesn’t like some of things it can’t do, but there haven’t been challenges to the science.  The grizzly bear conservation strategies seem to be more like the alternative process, where what the land managers want is infused into the discussions of the science.  (The Yellowstone strategy was already voided by a court once because of scientific issues.)

2 Comments

  1. “… not to come up with a plan that everybody could agree on”

    Some might see this as a way to bypass public opinion, flawed as it might be. Who decides which ‘science’ to embrace and which ‘science’ to discard? That seems to be a huge current roadblock to so many projects, these days. However, solely focusing on ‘science’ and not factoring in human impacts is not the best way to go, IMHO.

  2. That was just the first step. The second step included an 84-person committee. Presumably they could have changed whatever they could agree on, but that decision was informed by what the scientists said species needed to survive. (The article didn’t get this specific, but the scientists have to be given an objective, which for listed species would be derived from ESA.)

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