Using return on investment to maximize conservation effectiveness in Argentine grasslands

William Murdoch, Jai Ranganathan, Stephen Polasky, James Regetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


The rapid global loss of natural habitats and biodiversity, and limited resources, place a premium on maximizing the expected benefits of conservation actions. The scarcity of information on the finegrained distribution of species of conservation concern, on risks of loss, and on costs of conservation actions, especially in developing countries, makes efficient conservation difficult. The distribution of ecosystem types (unique ecological communities) is typically better known than species and arguably better represents the entirety of biodiversity than do well-known taxa, so we use conserving the diversity of ecosystem types as our conservation goal. We define conservation benefit to include risk of conversion, spatial effects that reward clumping of habitat, and diminishing returns to investment in any one ecosystem type. Using Argentine grasslands as an example, we compare three strategies: protecting the cheapest land ("minimize cost"), maximizing conservation benefit regardless of cost ("maximize benefit"), and maximizing conservation benefit per dollar ("return on investment"). We first show that the widely endorsed goal of saving some percentage (typically 10%) of a country or habitat type, although it may inspire conservation, is a poor operational goal. It either leads to the accumulation of areas with low conservation benefit or requires infeasibly large sums ofmoney, and it distracts from the real problem: maximizing conservation benefit given limited resources. Second, given realistic budgets, return on investment is superior to the other conservation strategies. Surprisingly, however, over a wide range of budgets, minimizing cost provides more conservation benefit than does the maximize-benefit strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20855-20862
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
StatePublished - Dec 7 2010


  • Benefit:cost ratio
  • Economic cost
  • Rarity

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