Ecology Systematic Conservation Planning
Robert Fritz Baldwin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0204


The high rate of biodiversity loss due to human activities constitutes a sixth major extinction in the history of the Earth and led to the realization in the late 20th century that past decisions about where to conserve nature were limited in scope and spatially biased. A sparse covering of protected areas, omission of many of the richest locations, and poor management of human-dominated landscapes has given rise to a sense of social and political urgency. Leading authors, including Edward O. Wilson in his popular book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (see Wilson 2016, cited under Biodiversity Loss), argue that we need to manage as much as half of the planet for biodiversity and ecosystem services. While that seems unattainable to some, others argue that through application of mapping technology and data, informed decisions about where to conserve new areas, how to manage them, and how to anticipate changing climate and land use, biodiversity can be conserved and human enterprise may even be enhanced. Essentially concerned with designing a set of mapped blueprints for the future of the planet, this thinking coalesced in the field of systematic conservation planning around the year 2000. Systematic conservation planning has its roots in biogeography, spatial planning, and landscape ecology, and it integrates social and economic concerns. Landmark papers, central of which is “Systematic Conservation Planning” in the journal Nature (see Margules and Pressey 2000, cited under History of Systematic Conservation Planning), defined the field as systematically assessing the value of every part of the landscape and seascape in relation to its ability to represent ecological pattern and process and to its threat and, hence, level of priority. The field developed rapidly due, in part, to an increase in computing capacity and the availability of geospatial data. The relative ease with which spatial data may be accessed, sharing of open-access software, and increased computing speed has resulted in an uptake by a wide array of academic and conservation entities. Systematic conservation planning has been critiqued as being top down, command and control, and technocratic. Social scientists have become more engaged to correct these problems by developing realistic and inclusive, stakeholder-based planning processes. Also, biogeographic data are often not uniformly available for the scale at which decisions must be made, cultural data are often not included, and computational limits remain. Despite these challenges, systematic conservation planning continues to grow and develop new methods, with hundreds of publications in the peer-reviewed literature and many real-world applications.

General Overviews

As is often the case in any field, the earliest papers are the most readable in presenting the general problems and approaches; systematic conservation planning is no exception. Highly understandable, introductory and general treatments are given in Margules and Pressey 2000 (cited under History of Systematic Conservation Planning); Groves, et al. 2002; and Groves 2003 (cited under History of Systematic Conservation Planning). Margules and Pressey 2000 is a foundational paper that lays out the problems and approaches of systematic conservation planning and served as the basic reference for the generation of scientists who followed. After an explosion of research, full-length syntheses, including Moilanen, et al. 2009. Kukkala and Moilanen 2013 reviews the diaspora of studies in order to clarify usage and meaning of core concepts and terms. Reviews of applications to different projects have also been completed, such as Trombulak and Baldwin 2010 and Hilty, et al. 2012. Topics important to systematic conservation planning, as in habitat connectivity (Crooks and Sanjayan 2006) and climate conservation (Lawler 2009), have had their own overviews.

  • Crooks, K. R., and M. Sanjayan, eds. 2006. Connectivity conservation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    At the time, a compendium of the most up-to-date thinking and information on how to integrate habitat connectivity with conservation. Although there have been advancements, this book is foundational to many of those more recent approaches.

  • Groves, C., D. Jensen, L. L. Valutis, et al. 2002. Planning for biodiversity conservation: Putting conservation science into practice. Bioscience 52.6: 499–512.

    DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0499:PFBCPC]2.0.CO;2

    Written primarily scientists from The Nature Conservancy, the authors present a seven-step framework for selecting areas for conservation based on ecoregional patterns and information from multiple scales and ecological systems.

  • Hilty, J. A., C. C. Chester, and M. S. Cross, eds. 2012. Climate and conservation: Landscape and seascape science, planning, and action. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    A total of twenty-two chapters are included mainly with examples of applying climate conservation to systematic conservation planning in different regions of the world, including freshwater, seascape, polar and montane landscapes.

  • Kukkala, A., and A. Moilanen. 2013. Core concepts of spatial prioritisation in systematic conservation planning. Biological Reviews 88.2: 443–464.

    DOI: 10.1111/brv.12008

    This review considers the diaspora of papers and projects in systematic conservation planning since its inception and clarifies the sometimes conflicting use of terms and methods.

  • Lawler, J. J. 2009. Climate change adaptation strategies for resource management and conservation planning. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1162.2: 79–98.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04147.x

    This is a comprehensive review by one of the most active conservation scientists that is focused on conservation planning, with a specific section on climate and conservation planning.

  • Moilanen, A., K. A. Wilson, and H. P. Possingham, eds. 2009. Spatial conservation prioritization: Quantitative methods and computational tools. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An engaging and comprehensive book covering a range of methods and concepts, edited and written by many of the leaders in the field. Since the field is relatively new and is also heavily computational, the chapters, for example about Marxan and Zonation, help to communicate complex topics in a clear manner.

  • Trombulak, S. C., and R. F. Baldwin, eds. 2010. Landscape-scale conservation planning. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    This book was born of a transboundary conservation collaborative in the United States and Canada and describes the application of systematic conservation planning to these countries, as well as related scientific concerns. For example, a chapter on marine spatial planning and one on governance are included.

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