Author Archives: mselinske

Dividing lines in conservation

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.51.47 amAs members of an interdisciplinary lab, I initially thought our views of conservation would be a little more divergent. But, after taking the Future of Conservation Survey (like a personality test for conservationists), it seems we collectively straddle the left-hand side of the Conservation and Capitalism x-axis; meaning that we view natural and social systems as inseparable and intertwined. We fell into the New Conservationists or Critical Social Science groupings (for a comprehensive breakdown of the groupings visit the description page).

Where we differ and only just slightly, are in our views the roles that market-based mechanisms, ecosystem services and corporations play in conservation. Our group is made up of wayward physicists, ecologists, political scientists, and practitioners whose epistemologies for the most part reflect pragmatism rather than strict ideologies and I guess this pragmatism is the reason why we were all mostly aligned.

As you can see from my red dot on the graph I fall in the upper left quadrant, the New Conservation “camp”, but only just so. There were certain statements in the questionnaire such as “Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes” that I think most conservationists agree with even if they, as I do, support the limited use of financial instruments or economic case for the conservation of biodiversity. Economic incentives can work but they often do not (Lim et al. 2017, Selinske et al. 2017)—context matters.

At least from the snapshot of other’s results that took the test before me, it seems that most would agree with Georgina Mace’s Science editorial Whose Conservation? in which she posits that we are currently in a People and Nature framing of conservation, celebrating interdisciplinarity, both social and ecological sciences and concepts of change such as resilience and adaptability; rejecting a nature for people and “Half-Earth” framing of conservation. The debates that mark conservation—new conservation vs. traditional conservation; land-sparing vs. land sharing—are not black or white and it is likely that many conservationists have nuanced views of conservation, and fall across the spectrum.

Debates are a fixture of conservation science, because we are passionate about our work and the direction of conservation as evidenced by our recent disagreement with an article published by Peter Karieva and Emma Fuller. Conservation practice emerged as a ‘big tent’ movement encompassing the divergent views of visionaries such as Muir, Pinchot, and Leopold, and this continued diversity in conservation science should be supported, critiqued and embraced as the conservation community for some time will remain an assemblage of philosophies and approaches to conservation policy and implementation.

Framing Conservation Messages


By Alex Kusmanoff

Myself and a number of esteemed colleagues have recently published a paper, Framing the Private Land Conservation Conversation: Strategic framing of the benefits of conservation participation could increase landholder engagement in Environmental Science and Policy. In it we look at how the benefits of private land conservation are currently being framed.It can be found here:

For those of you who don’t have time to read it, I shall provide a synopsis.

First, some context.

Private land is home to some amazing and important species and ecological communities, some of which are only found on private land. And the success of our efforts to conserve nature on private land is intrinsically linked to the engagement of willing landholder participants.

Despite much research the influences on landholder participation, studies show that only a small proportion of landholders tend to participate in private land conservation (PLC) schemes (these include things like management agreements, conservation covenants and stewardship payments). And although there has been widespread implementation of PLC policy instruments, success at engaging rural landholders in conservation initiatives has been mixed.

Presumably, convincing landholders as to why they should participate in private land conservation is an important part of getting more people involved.

So we looked at how contemporary communications from the sector currently communicate the benefits of participation to landholders to see how this was currently done.

We used a value orientation framework to analyse how the participation benefits of Australian PLC schemes are framed. Value orientation refers to the way that people weigh different interests when making decisions. These consist of egoistic, social-altruistic and biospheric orientations.

Egoistically oriented people tend to weigh the cost and benefits to themselves personally; social-altruistically oriented people tend to weigh the costs and benefits to others; and biospherically oriented people tend to weigh the costs and benefits to the biosphere as a whole. Of course people do not act perfectly according to any particular orientation, but in this case it serves as a useful framework to understand what’s currently happening.

By analysing the way benefits of PLC are framed in communications, we can gain insight into the breadth of the audience likely to be engaged. So we analysed the website content of 20 of the most notable Australian PLC schemes and categorised the benefits mentioned on these websites as being either benefits to the landholder, to society, or to the environment (these categories corresponding to the value orientations described above). Although landholders get their information from a range of sources (neighbours, extensions officers, field days), websites are often visited to get more detailed information about specific programs.

Our thinking was if PLC communications are to be relevant and engaging to as broad a range of landholders as possible, these three different kinds of benefits should all be well represented across these websites.

And what did we find?

Our results suggest a heavy reliance on environmentally-themed messages which is unlikely to engage landholders who are more egoistically oriented. This was particularly the case with market-based schemes, that you can imagine ought to appeal to production-focussed landholders and those not already involved in conservation.

So what does this mean, I hear you think.

We argue that perhaps framing the benefits of PLC more broadly (covering the different value orientations) would engage a greater diversity of landholders, aiding PLC recruitment. In particular, increased use of landholder and society benefits may be advantageous in engaging a wider range, and greater number of landholders.

However, we caution that any promised benefits must be achievable; over-promising and under-delivering could be a sure-fire means of permanently deterring the participation of many landholders.

We also need further research about the potential for unintended feedback effects, for example, the potential for motivational crowding in messages that focus on landholder benefits.

This is not a definitive statement on how PLC benefits are framed, or even how they ought to be framed, but a first step in understanding how they might be strategically re-framed for better effect.

As a first step, we simply urge PLC programs to be aware of the value orientation frame implicit in their messages, and to consider whether this is a good match for their audience and their program’s goal. Best practice in any case will be determined by the context.


Kusmanoff, A., M., Fidler, F., Hardy, M., Maffey, G., Raymond, C., Reed, M., Fitzsimons, J., and Bekessy, S. (2016) Framing the Private Land Conservation Conversation: Strategic framing of the benefits of conservation participation could increase landholder engagement. Environmental Science and Policy. 61: 124 – 128.

Conservation Heroes

Recently, I spoke at Laborastory, an event for science geeks at the Spotted Mallard in Melbourne. Laborastory is a monthly get together where five people from various backgrounds in science tell stories of their science heroes. I spoke about my science hero, ecologist and conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

Aldo Leopold developed the field of wildlife ecology while teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison from 1929-1948. Many in conservation and ecology are familiar with Leopold’s collections of writings in A Sand County Almanac– for those that are not, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy A.S.A.P. Leopold’s literary gifts to us are poetic descriptions of the ecological dramas take place on his Midwestern farm and philosophical musings on environmental ethics. His writings provide a foundation for ecological economics and the U.S environmental movement of the 1960’s-70s.

Today a read through A Sand County Almanac transports me to my youth, conjuring up Midwestern prairies and oak woodlands landscapes, surprising me with its continued relevancy, nearly 65 years after it was first published. Most importantly Leopold delivers inspiration when I need it in a field of work and research that can, at times, be quite challenging. That’s what heroes are for right? Who are your conservation heroes? Who delivers inspiration when you need it? E.O. Wilson? Rachael Carson? David Attenborough? Wangari Maathai?

Feel free to tweet us back your conservation heroes @consciRMIT or post a comment here on the blog.