A bird`s eye view of conservation policy

A team of Italian researchers have taken a novel approach to evaluating conservation policy by studying decades of photographs of a natural protected area taken from the air. The analysis revealed that conservation efforts which are managed at a local level are the most effective measures.

The study results suggest that many of the policy measures employed throughout the years have failed to reduce the negative impact of humans. The study focussed on the Torre Guaceto area in Southern Italy. The findings could help inform future management of protected natural areas throughout Europe.

Torre Guaceto was designated an international important wetland (IIW) under the Ramsar convention1 in 1971, a site of community importance (SCI) under Natura 20002 in 1995, an important bird area (IBA) in 1998 under the European Birds Directive3 and an institution of the natural protected area (PA) in 2000 by the Italian Government. However, the findings suggest that only the PA measure has had a noticeable impact, improving the conservation value of the area.

The research assessed the effectiveness of each of these accreditations in conserving the area by calculating changes to its 'natural capital value' (NCV). This concept places a monetary value on tangible commercial services that come from the natural environment - such as clean water and food production - and non-commercial services that natural land provides, including aesthetic benefits, recreation and climate regulation.

Aerial photographs, taken during July of each year since 1954, were converted into detailed maps which revealed land-use and land-cover changes throughout the period. The NCV of the land was calculated for each year based on these maps. The researchers matched changes in NCV with protection measures implemented at the time, to provide an indication of how successful each measure was in protecting the area.

Most of the changes in land use over the 50-year period were at the boundary areas, where the land was more vulnerable to impacts from the surrounding human population. These changes were mainly associated with a reduction in the area of wetland, and its conversion into forest and agricultural land.

Overall, the NCV of the land decreased from 1954 to 1997. The IIW and SCI had no apparent impact on conserving the area and the researchers were unable to assess the impact of the IBA accreditation due to gaps in the data. However, there was an increase in NCV from 1997 to 2004 which the authors attribute to the Italian PA status. General environmental conservation policies, such as the IIW and SCI measures, recognise the natural value of an area. However, the authors suggest that they may not be supported by the local authority. The PA designation, on the other hand, has greater involvement from the local authority who have a strong understanding of ecological and disturbance processes in the area.

Designations are therefore not effective in themselves, and local management by means of regulations, ecological monitoring and environmental education and communication activities appear to be more supportive of natural capital. To improve the management of Natura 2000 sites, the authors recommend developing close working relationships with landowners and stakeholder groups in or around individual sites to collaboratively improve natural capital whilst respecting local socio-economic and cultural conditions.

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