Published: Aug. 18, 2022

Forests in some regions of the global south and tropics, where governments are poorer, should be prioritized for conservation, the researchers contend

Forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate across the globe, reducing habitat needed for species conservation. New research out today in Nature, though, offers some hope in the form of a model determining which forests—and where—are the most important to save.

This mathematical model, developed by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Minnesota, looked at which forests were the most important to protect first to conserve species and reduce extinction risks with limited conservation budgets.

“With ongoing deforestation and limited conservation budgets, deciding which forests to protect first requires careful prioritization. Beyond cost effectiveness, that prioritization has to grapple with the fact that forests we don't protect today could be gone tomorrow,” said Steve Miller, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and a co-author on the paper.

“Our research tackles the dynamic nature of forest conservation, identifying key regions to invest in over the next 50 years.”

The researchers identified where forest conservation dollars should be prioritized by analyzing global data on plant biodiversity, forest land, rates of deforestation and the cost of conservation in various locations.

Steve Miller

At the top of the page: Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (CIFOR/Flickr). Above: Steve Miller is one of the co-authors on the new paper, out today in Nature.

Their model accounts for species that live in 458 forest ecoregions, the opportunity to spend on both protection and reforestation, and conservation costs that may rise over a 50-year horizon as competing uses for remaining forest intensify.

The researchers found:

  • Conservation spending in the near term should be concentrated in a small number of priority ecoregions.
  • Those regions, primarily in the tropics, offer the opportunity to protect a large number of species at a comparatively low cost.
  • The cost of conservation matters more than the threat of deforestation when deciding where to spend conservation dollars. Priorities should be driven primarily by the benefit-to-cost ratio that different ecoregions offer, while rates of deforestation play a secondary role.

Many of the highest priority ecoregions for conservation, the researchers contend, are in lower-income tropical areas in Melanesia, South and Southeast Asia, South America and Central America. These locations are rich in biodiversity but tend to be poor in financial terms. Substantial international funding to conserve and restore forests is needed.

 “It is important to consider both when and where to conserve. Deforestation causes loss of habitat for forest-dependent species. Once a species is extinct it cannot be brought back to life. Our research finds an approach that minimizes extinction risks by considering both what regions are most important to conserve and what regions are most important to conserve first,” said Ian Luby, lead author and former University of Minnesota graduate student, now with the U.S. Geological Survey.

These recommendations are relevant to ongoing international negotiations to protect biodiversity. For example, at the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, world leaders are expected to adopt the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will shape conservation planning for the next decade.

Forward-looking conservation plans that incorporate biological benefits, economic costs and threats can protect thousands of additional species within existing levels of conservation spending. This approach, the researchers argue, could also be usefully applied at a smaller scale to offer actionable conservation guidance at regional scales.

“We are rapidly losing forests in parts of the world that have rich biodiversity,” said Stephen Polasky, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

“Our research shows that allocating limited conservation funds to first protect areas with little remaining forest, high biodiversity and relatively low cost of protection can save many species from extinction.”

This piece was adapted with permission from the University of Minnesota.