Stanford scientists call for human-focused approach to conservation

New research suggests that calculating the true value of a forest requires knowing how people benefit from it. Photo by Luis Del Rio/Pexels
New research suggests that calculating the true value of a forest requires knowing how people benefit from it. Photo by Luis Del Rio/Pexels

Oct. 12 (UPI) -- In a new paper, scientists at Stanford University argue conservation efforts must account for the diversity of ways humans benefit from forests.

Forests can help filter and clean drinking water, provide lumber for construction and help humans reconnect with the natural world. While forests can't be everything to everyone, the latest paper -- published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability -- suggests they can and should be many different things to many different people.


"Context matters," study author Lisa Mandle said in a news release.

"If we want to protect the critical natural assets we all depend on, we need actionable policies that incorporate people's diverse needs. It shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach when we're talking about people and nature," said Mandle, lead scientists at the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

Climate change and biodiversity losses have highlighted the need to protect the planet's forests. To maintain healthy and sustainable forests, Mandle and her colleagues argue forest management plans must focus on people just as much as they focus on trees.


According to the new paper, forest management decision making must also be guided by the goal of equity. Forests might offer financial benefits to one group, such as logging companies, while providing deep cultural significance to another, like native groups.

For their study, researchers reviewed the scientific literature on the "ecosystem service" approach to conservation and resource management, an approach intended to "illuminate how nature contributes to human well-being, and thereby elevate consideration of nature in decision making."

Despite the well-intentioned nature of the ecosystem service approach, researchers found ES-inspired resource management plans and conservation efforts rarely considered the full scope of services that forests provide people.

ES-focused assessments also failed to consider the diverse array of people and groups that benefits from and rely on forests, the researchers said.

When forest management policies fail to account for the services forests provide to different groups of people, authors of the new paper argue, the people who value nature the most are often ignored.

"If you don't know who specifically would benefit from which ecosystems, how can you prioritize where and how to conserve?" said co-author Taylor Ricketts, director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment. "We want to make sure the benefits of ecosystems are shared equitably, so that we don't make existing racial and social inequality even worse."


Traditional nature-based approaches to natural resource protection can yield environmental and economic benefits, researchers acknowledged. But Mandle suggests these approaches often ignore the needs of people, imperiling their longterm viability.

"People need to see themselves -- their values and needs -- supported in conservation efforts," Ricketts said. "Often, research will try to assign an overall dollar value to nature without thinking about who will benefit from it."

"That's like saying you have $50 of food in your pantry, but you don't know what kind of food it is or who will be eating. You can't plan your meal without knowing what you have and what your diners need," she said.

Researchers hope their newly published paper will inspire scientists and policy makers to engage with the different communities that use and depend on forests, so as to craft resource protection plans that better meet societal needs and boost equity, while maintaining healthy ecosystems.

"This is a call for us all to do a better job. We can better deliver the information needed to move towards a more sustainable and equitable future," said Mandle. "And that's what we're all working toward."

Latest Headlines