Conservation Biology

Linkage of Conservation Activity to Trends in the U.S. Economy

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Courtesy of Conservation Biology

Abstract: As an economy grows, natural capital such as timber, soil, and water is reallocated to the human economy. This conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation creates a conundrum for conservation biologists because traditional forms of conservation action require money. We hypothesize that conservation spending in the United States is highly correlated with income and wealth, and we tested whether selected proxies for U.S. conservation activity could be predicted by U.S. economic indicators over time scales of 7–71 years. Stock market indexes (Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard & Poor's 500 Index), gross domestic product (GDP), and personal income (PI) explained as much as 99% of annual variation in total revenue (including contributions) to four large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, The Nature Conservancy. These broad economic indicators also explained as much as 96% of the annual number of university conservation programs, 83% of membership in professional conservation organizations (Natural Areas Association, Society for Conservation Biology), 93% of national park visitation, and 99+% of national park acreage. In most analyses, the income variables GDP and PI explained more variation in conservation activity than did either of the stock-market wealth variables. After long-term growth was removed from the time series, changes in revenues to the four NGOs combined were significantly correlated with GDP but not PI over the short term. Short-term variation in park acreage was significantly correlated with GDP and PI but lagged both by 3 years. Using linear models based on GDP, we predicted increases of 2.3% in 2003 cumulative NGO revenues and 1.0% in 2006 acreage owned by the National Park Service. The conservation activity parameters we measured may exhibit positive trends even in the face of declining biodiversity, but biodiversity conservation will ultimately require the cessation of economic growth. The challenge to the conservation biology community is to retain a significant presence during and after the cessation of growth.

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