Take a close look at this image from a farm in central NSW.
If I tell you that the trees and shrubs in the foreground represent one of the very few remaining patches of native vegetation for miles around, what would you think?
Here are a few options
- Put a fence around it and save the patch at all costs.
- Surely it cannot be that precious, there has to be another patch somewhere nearby. It does not look that special.
- Who cares, it’s just a scrubby patch of bush.
- Cut it down to make it easier for the tractor to pull the irrigation boom across the paddock.
If I told you it was the last intact patch of an endangered vegetation type only known from this district, and irreplaceable. Would this change your answer?
It might, just as any additional evidence about the vegetation parcel and its inhabitants might, but probably only slightly. If you were keen to cut it down to make room for the booms, then this still would seem the best option. After all, you have been compromising for rare critters for years at a cost to your business with no obvious thanks from anyone.
If you already thought the patch had conservation value, the new information just means you need a bigger fence.
This disparate valuation of nature is at the core of the conservation conundrum. It sets up a noisy argument that rapidly polarises and is hard to resolve and goes something like this.
“Production is essential because it feeds people including those that want to hug trees”, she said.
“But extinction is forever and what right do we have to deprive the future of today’s natural wonders?” he said.
“People have to eat,” she said.
“Extinction is forever,” he said.
Soon the focus is on the heat of the exchange at the expense of any compromise solutions.
Lost in the argument is conservation value. Rather than my dollar is better than your koala, the real question for this parcel of land is what conservation value does it have?
Does it contribute to the persistence of key or threatened species?
Does it provide essential ecosystem services that in turn support multiple species?
Is it irreplaceable?
And the only way to assess this is to consider the processes that bring about the objects we want to conserve.
We need for the conservationist to think like an evolutionary biologist and not focus so much on today’s koala but on what needs to be done to ensure there are koalas around tomorrow.
And we need the land manager to realise that in providing for the processes that maintain koalas, there is a great benefit to production from the ecosystem services healthier landscapes provide.