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New report helps conservationists assess how key natural areas benefit humans

By

Skip Derra

The International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Protected Areas (IUCN-WCPA) recently issued new guidance to help ecologists assess ecosystem services within important sites for biodiversity and nature conservation. The report — co-authored by Arizona State University’s Leah Gerber and Center for Biodiversity Outcomes Affiliate researchers Penny Langhammer and Rachel Neugarten — reviews nine assessment tools and focuses on their application in key biodiversity areas, natural World Heritage sites and protected areas.

The report, “Tools for measuring, modelling, and valuing ecosystem services: Guidance for Key Biodiversity Areas, natural World Heritage sites, and protected areas,” is the result of a collaboration between more than 20 international experts in the field convened by the IUCN. 

Ecosystem services — the benefits that nature provides to humans — deliver solutions to global challenges such as climate change and sustainable development. They include carbon storage and sequestration, water provision, recreation and tourism, opportunities for income and many other benefits. 

“Key biodiversity areas and protected areas are not only crucial for conserving biodiversity, they also provide a range of benefits and ecosystem services that support human well-being,” said co-author Gerber, director of ASU’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and a professor in the School of Life Sciences. “Identifying and measuring these services shows how people benefit from these places, and that understanding can then be integrated into management and decision-making processes.” 

Protected areas — including natural World Heritage sites and key biodiversity areas — play a crucial role in securing the long-term delivery of ecosystem services, as nature is increasingly degraded or lost elsewhere. Safeguarding these key areas is therefore important not only for biodiversity conservation but also for sustaining human well-being.

Identifying and quantifying the benefits provided by these sites can help decision-makers and protected area managers show the importance of conserving them. It can help attract new sources of funding and manage the sites more effectively.

Selecting a tool that can be applied in a specific context, and given particular resource constraints, can be challenging and time-consuming as a wide range of ecosystem service assessment tools have been developed in recent years. The IUCN report helps identify an appropriate tool through a set of “decision trees,” which are available online.

“Many site managers and researchers want to understand how their sites are benefiting people, but are overwhelmed by the number of tools for ecosystem services that are available,” said lead author Rachel Neugarten of Conservation International. “This guide will help them pick a tool based on the goals of their assessment, the kinds of information they need and the time and resources they have.” Conservation International partners with ASU to advance measurable outcomes on conservation. 

Protected areas are dedicated spaces which are clearly defined geographically, and are recognized and managed through legal or other means. Natural World Heritage sites are recognized as the world’s most significant protected areas, with just 247 sites out of more than 230,000 protected areas. Key biodiversity areas are sites contributing significantly to global biodiversity. More than 15,000 of these have been identified to date.

The report is part of the IUCN-WPCA Best Practice Guidelines series. It has been prepared by the Ecosystem Services and Key Biodiversity Areas expert working group supported by Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), IUCN’s World Heritage Programme and the IUCN-WCPA Natural Solutions Specialist Group.