* What's the basic goal here?
It's to respond to a startling insight by Harvard professor E.O. Wilson pointing out one of the world's greatest problems:
"Every country has three forms of wealth: material, cultural, and biological. The first two we understand well because they are the substance of our everyday lives. The essence of the biodiversity problem is that biological wealth is taken much less seriously. This is a major strategic error, one that will be increasingly regretted as time passes. Diversity is a potential source for immense untapped material wealth in the form of food, medicine, and amenities." (The Diversity of Life, 1992, p. 311)
The response is to create a network of science-based social decision-making centers which establish within each jurisdiction which elements of biodiversity are the most imperiled, locates these elements precisely on maps usable by project planners and decision-makers, makes this information available to all stakeholders, and updates it -- forever. In fact, we have already created and established a network of nearly one hundred such centers, and the task now is to bring this network to new continents -- to build useful bridges, not simply of friendship but of mutual learning and exchange.
* What is a "Natural Heritage Conservation Decision/Data Center"?
The core of a NHCDC is a staff of local scientists working full-time at collecting, processing, analyzing, and providing data on all of the "elements" of the biodiversity of a jurisdiction. Depending on resources available, other positions can be added such as stakeholder outreach, climate change specialist, etc. Staff partner with government agencies and others and help them utilize NHCDC data in planning and review efforts. Special effort is made to inform groups effectively excluded from participation through lack of information. (In the US, we built a center for the Navajo, for example). In Asia, the staff is trained by The BioDiversity Conservancy (BDC), a new international conservation organization. The training is in core "Natural Heritage" methodology used by all centers in a very large network covering the states/provinces of the US and Canada, a significant portion of Latin America, and now being brought to China and Central Asia by BDC.
The methodology is a proven success. It has endured since 1974 and is now permanent. It consists of normalized data structures containing standardized protocols for gathering, processing, analyzing and making available biodiversity data useful to decision-makers in need of such data for practical planning and review purposes.
* What do you mean by "all of the elements of biodiversity"?
"Elements" are a) species of plants and of animals, on the one hand, and b) ecosystem-types, on the other. "All of the elements of biodiversity" means all of the species of plants and animals and ecosystem-types in the country. Emphasis is given to vascular plants and vertebrate animals, but non-vascular plants and invertebrates are also included, limited only by time, resources, and the state of knowledge of these organisms in the country. Micro-organisms can in special cases be included also, but are generally treated as components of ecosystem-types.
Ecosystem-types subsume the total biodiversity of the country. They constitute a complete classification of all of the country's land and water areas. Ecosystem-types contain biota some of the individual species of which have not yet been identified by science, and it is for this reason that the NHCDC includes ecosystem-types among the elements on which it amasses data. Ecosystem-types represent a "coarse filter" on biodiversity, compared to the "fine filter" that data about individual species represents. Classification of ecosystem types is a special part of the overall Natural Heritage methodology. The protocols of classification have been worked out by ecologists in the network over many years and are constantly being researched.
* What is the mission of a NHCDC? Give me an idea of its data.
The NHCDC mission is to provide objective scientific data on elements of biodiversity for the purposes of rational resource management and intelligent development and conservation. This data consists of relative criticality rankings and life history information for all species and ecosystems. For those elements thought to be rare, precise locations for each individual occurrence of the element are mapped. These occurrences are also entered into the database, so that documented numbers can be obtained and relative criticality rankings can be based on these numbers rather than on estimates. The database consists of comprehensive manual, map, and computer files.
The NHCDC data system consists of hundreds of standardized data record formats. Into these formats are entered, as the data center matures, thousands of records -- tens of thousands in the case of large countries with large staffs. The standardized formats and protocols constitute "Natural Heritage" methodology.
* What does a NHCDC do?
a) Collect data. The NHCDC focuses particularly on collecting data on the precise locations of each element believed to rank high in terms of vulnerability or otherwise thought to be of interest. The NHCDC collects this data not by randomly gathering information about these elements, or even by inventorying certain known elements of scientific interest, but rather by systematically listing, ranking, verifying, locating, and prioritizing all elements. The NHCDC collects many other types of data as well. The NHCDC first incorporates all existing sources of data and then, using priorities derived from this effort, undertakes field work on elements believed to be rare and to fill any significant gaps which have been identified in the data.
b) Process data. All data collected is processed into computer, map, and manual files according to standardized protocols. Quality control of the data processing function is strongly emphasized and is the overall responsibility of the center's data manager. The NHCDC maps element locations on fine-scale maps that have practical utility (unlike many "dots on white space" maps produced by GIS systems) and which can be used efficaciously by persons charged with making decisions about how land is to be used.
c) Analyze data. The NHCDC counts the number of occurrences of each element and continually revises the priority ranks assigned to each element of biodiversity within the country. These revisions are based on these numbers and on other verifiable factors, such as whether the locations are on protected or unprotected landscape. The NHCDC analyzes its database in connection with responses to ad hoc requests for data as well as in connection with regular summaries and reports it finds useful to make. These analyses typically both dispel unfounded beliefs about biodiversity priorities and establish and document real biodiversity priorities.
d) Provide data and partner with those who need it. The goal of all NHCDCs is to prevent destruction of the most vulnerable elements of biodiversity. They thus provide their data about conservation priorities and about the specific location of the most vulnerable elements to those who need it -- government agencies planning or reviewing projects that affect the landscape, businesses planning developments, managers of existing preserves so that they can know the status of elements they manage, organizations involved in conservation, and researchers seeking to expand scientific knowledge of the elements of biodiversity. NHCDCs work on a partnership model. They seek to partner both with those who supply data relevant to biodiversity conservation and those who need biodiversity conservation data in the very utilitarian manner in which NHCDCs can provide it. NHCDCs seek out mutual supportive relationships with all of these entities, and in fact in most of the network they are supported by agencies which need their data and are most able to use it in their work.
* What else does the NHCDC do?
The NHCDC enters onto its maps the boundaries of all reserves and other protected areas, as well of all other areas that have some sort of manager. This important data is correlated with locations of elements of biodiversity in order to determine which elements fall on land already protected and with ones do not.
Life history and management data on each of the target species is also collected. In some cases such data has to be generated anew. In others it is already available directly from other NHCDC's which also track these species or ecosystem-types obviously, the possibility of this sort of piggybacking increases the more there are other NHCDC's near your country. This increases the efficiency of all NHCDC's since this data does not have to be regenerated over and over again in new jurisdictions.
The NHCDC compiles extensive data on sources of information about the country's elements of biodiversity. All data contained in the NHCDC is documented as to source. It is thus crucial to have a complete file of sources.
The NHCDC provides data. It works with land managers and planners of all kinds and informs them of the true status of the elements of biodiversity their actions will affect. The NHCDC works with other researchers in setting further inventory and data gathering priorities.
These are only some examples of other tasks and functions performed by the NHCDC.
* Where does the data come from?
Initially, from a comprehensive search of secondary sources, including museum collections, the literature, unpublished reports, knowledgeable scientists, experienced land managers, government employees and others. Once this data has been incorporated into the system, the scientific staff of the NHCDC begins to do field work to confirm locations for the most important of these elements and to search for additional occurrences. Thus begins a process which never ends: the database is continually updated with additional information, so that it provides "always current" data to decision-makers.
* How will the NHCDC be set up and staffed? What language is used?
The NHCDC will be set up and administered by local scientific staff hired, trained and supervised under a partnership put together specifically for this purpose. The partnership consists of a local research organization and an international expertise-provider which transfers the technology. Traditionally, the beginning staff consists of a botanist, a zoologist, an ecologist and a data manager, though larger countries sometimes begin with larger staffs.
Data products (reports and other products) given to local decision-makers are in the local language. The staff of the data center are native speakers of the local language and conduct their business in that language. The forms that appear on their computer screens are in the local language. Data collected from local repositories and individuals (and processed into the database) is in the local language. Latin, of course, is used for species' names. As with all scientific projects connected to the global community of scientists, English also plays an important role. It is used particularly for the set-up period in which staff are trained and the database is installed, since the expertise-providers use English in training and since documentation of the system is primarily in English.
* How is the NHCDC supported?
The NHCDC is launched for a pilot period of three to five years. During the pilot period, it is generally supported by a combination of funds, which can come from some or all of the following: a host agency, corporations, international agencies, charitable foundations, philanthropic individuals. Often valuable in-kind services, such as office space, are contributed from participating institutions. Pilot period funding patterns vary from country to country.
At the end of the pilot period, when the NHCDC has long been up and running, the sources of funding for continuity come from those who have found the NHCDC useful. Generally, as the NHCDC reaches the end of its pilot period, the database it has amassed becomes extremely valuable to decision-makers, and this leads them to assist the NHCDC staff in finding ways to continue it on a permanent basis. It should also be noted that it is less expensive to continue a NHCDC than to initiate it, since many startup costs (training, data system installation, quality control procedures, progress tracking methods, among others) are onetime capital investments and thus have already been fully absorbed by the time the pilot period ends.
* Is this a GIS?
Yes, though geographic information systems (GIS) are different things to different people. In the sense of spatially organized data, the root idea of all GIS, a NHCDC is a perfect example of a GIS. For some people, however, GIS means particular software systems. No particular piece of GIS software, however, is necessary in order for the NHCDC to operate.
For the NHCDC, the key things are is its underlying biodiversity conceptual scheme and the standardized methodology derived therefrom, not the software in which this is implemented.
The data the NHCDC provides is spatially organized data. As such, this data is highly compatible with all GIS software and provides key data layers to any such system. Typical implementations of GIS software are traditionally strong on graphic display and weak on database management. The NHCDC is compatible with any graphic display and is both deep and strong when it comes to database management.
By necessity, the NHCDC is an example of "appropriate technology." The core budget of the NHCDC does not include expensive GIS software or staff, though this can be added when it proves useful and donors can be found who will make this possible.
* How is the NHCDC useful?
The NHCDC database contains specific numbers and details on the status and exact locations for each important species and ecosystem-type. The database thus deals quantitatively with precisely those aspects of biodiversity about which decision-makers require information in order to set rational priorities. decision-makers, whether developers, conservationists, resource managers, or researchers, can generally be made amenable all other things being equal to directing development to places which will do the least to destroy overall biodiversity.
In many cases, of course, all other things are not equal. In these cases, all the NHCDC is able to do is inform the participants of precisely what biodiversity will be lost or affected by their decisions and to document this. The NHCDC's goals are realistic, not Utopian. It is a mistake, however, to think of all development conservation decisions as all or nothing decisions. Typically, they are not like that. Typically, realistic modifications can be made to a proposed development which will mitigate, or even eliminate, its impact on biodiversity. In order to be able to come up with these modifications, however and in order for them to be persuasive it is necessary to have precise information about two things: the locations and the status of all elements of biodiversity affected by the proposal.
This is precisely the sort of information the NHCDC has. By presenting real numbers and specific locations, the NHCDC is able to come up with realistic modifications and in a meaningful sense make biodiversity conservation possible.
* Can the NHCDC even contribute to local economic growth?
Yes, it can, in a number of ways. First, by helping developers undertake projects which are rationally related to the resource base they will impact. A project designed so as to preserve valuable biodiversity resources, yet produce for the developer the economic returns he seeks, is a project that is rationally related to the resource base it will impact. The NHCDC provides just the sort of data needed for designs of this sort.
Second, local economic growth needs to occur in the long term, not just in the short term. By providing data about what projects can be undertaken with minimal biodiversity impact, or even just a lesser biodiversity impact, the NHCDC can help ensure that the resource base is not wasted on short term projects which in the long term will create significant problems.
Third, data about present and potential economic uses of elements is collected along with the other life history information. These include medicinal, industrial, and agricultural uses. Coupling this data with actual occurrence data in the country may lead to sound ways to exploit these resources on a sustainable basis.
* How does the NHCDC aid resource management?
Let's suppose a resource manager is presented with two alternatives, A and B, both of which accomplish the mission at the same cost. Let us also suppose that alternative B preserves more high priority elements of biodiversity than A. It is clear that, in these circumstances, the manager would choose B.
The problem is that managers seldom, if ever, possess enough information to determine that "B preserves more high priority elements than A." In the language of decision theory, they act under imperfect knowledge. Even if they are terrifically well-informed, have studied their land intensively, and have a list of all elements on it, including exact locations, they still have imperfect knowledge. What they need is data from other areas (areas outside the land they themselves manage) on those same elements. Only in this way will they be able to know, for each element on their land, its status whether it is common or rare, whether it is dispensable or deserving of protection.
To be sure, some elements are known as general knowledge to be very common, and thus the manager, even without a well documented database, can, with respect to these elements, proceed rationally. Likewise, individual elements may be known to be rare on the basis of general knowledge (though sometimes "general knowledge" is incorrect, as any scientist knows).
But in fact the bulk of elements, without a NHCDC to document their status, are poorly known, and it would thus be impossible to rationally prefer B to A or vice versa.
Worse, a number of things believed to be rare are in fact not rare, once an ongoing program systematically records their numbers and locations. This in fact has been the historical experience of NHCDC's: as data collection and processing proceeds, many elements initially thought to be rare are found to be sparsely distributed but not uncommon. Over time, the status of these elements is shown to be less critical than previously thought. What the manager really needs -- what all such managers really need -- is data from a comprehensive NHCDC for the country, which data consists of documented numbers that then give the true status of all of the elements on the particular land he or she manages.
* A lot of this depends on comparisons, but aren't sites impossible to compare?
Traditional inventories start with sites and end with sites, usually doing a poor job of defining site boundaries and permitting grossly different units to serve as the basis of comparison. The NHCDC circumvents this by treating the entire landscape in terms of individual occurrences of elements -- individual locations where elements occur. These individual occurrences are strictly comparable data units because all are defined using the same standardized criteria. The overall priority of any site, or area, then becomes a direct function of the relative rareness of the individual elements which are demonstrated to occur there and on the relative degree of vulnerability, if any, of those elements.
This matter is taken up further in papers we have posted discussing the underlying theory of the NHCDC. Here it suffices to say that the NHCDC, in providing utilizing strictly comparable data units and in laying out the details of element status, creates a context for making true comparisons and judging true priorities and will, as does a census of the human population, facilitate rational decisionmaking.
* How can the NHCDC provide "always-current" data?
The NHCDC is cost-effective. So often, traditional research efforts start out by redoing work done by previous studies, either because the previous studies are unknown to a later generation or because they were undertaken using methods different from those favored by subsequent investigators. Efforts undertaken by the NHCDC, on the contrary, always start up precisely where previous efforts left off. The database is additive from one generation to the next because it is based on strictly comparable, quantifiable units recorded using clearly documented protocols.
Additionally, the NHCDC allocates its resources in the most cost effective manner. Rather than describing or reconfirming common things over and over again, or trying to compare vaguely defined and ultimately incommensurable sites, the NHCDC concentrates effort on elements of documented rarity or about which there is a documented need to know more.
Because the NHCDC is cost effective it can become institutionalized and a permanent activity. This means that its activities can be continuous, and it can perpetually focus on the top priorities for data gathering. This enables it to provide "always current" data.
* Who uses the NHCDC?
Once the database is built, much time is spent responding to data requests from, among others, the following:
-- Government agencies doing environmental assessments or engaged in management of land they own;
-- Corporations seeking to better manage their land or in need of data for the purpose of making siting or extraction decisions;
-- Universities training new generations of scientists; -- Organizations working to conserve species or ecosystems;
-- Grantmakers seeking to allocate resources efficiently;
-- Consultants doing environmental impact statements on behalf of a client;
-- Individual scientists doing research.
* What role can the NHCDC play in research?
It enables more effective targeting of new research. By identifying real data gaps -- elements whose status is unknown -- research can be targeted to fill these gaps and can add something new to knowledge of the country's biodiversity rather than duplicating efforts made in the past. This method of targeting new research work is more rational than present methods which generally are not judged by any standard and simply reflect the personal interests of a given researcher. In fact, when data gaps are demonstrated quantitatively, as only a NHCDC can, almost all individual researchers prefer to pursue efforts which help close these gaps and which thus are additive to the work of other scientists.
* Is the NHCDC local or international?
The data system will be created by local scientific staff hired, trained and supervised by a partnership put together specifically for this purpose. One of the principal purposes of the partnership is transfer of the technology that underlies the NHCDC. So, the NHCDC is both local and international: it operates locally using an international methodology.
* Will there be other NHCDC's nearby?
We hope so. The best way to establish a network of NHCDCs is to establish an original data center and demonstrate that it works and works well. This center then becomes a seed for growing other centers and provides nourishment through sharing expertise it has acquired.
* Don't we already have biodiversity projects here? What makes the NHCDC different?
Yes, there are biodiversity projects here. Anything that studies or deals with any aspect of biodiversity can be called a biodiversity project. But a NHCDC is neither a study nor a limited duration project; nor does it deal with some particular aspect or aspects of biodiversity.
Rather, the NHCDC will be a permanent institution, providing "always current" data. And it will be comprehensive: it will collect and maintain precise data on all of the elements of biodiversity found here.
The NHCDC will be different in another very significant way as well. It will be based on and compatible with the world's largest network of such centers, due to its underlying core methodology. There are nearly 100 such centers in active use around the globe at present.
It should be noted that in the long history of the network, the initial reaction has always been, "We already have that here." This occurs before details of the NHCDC have been made clear and before it is realized how a NHCDC is different from other biological and ecological data efforts. Ultimately, of course, this reaction has not proven to be an insurmountable obstacle to the establishment NHCDCs, and in fact those with this reaction ultimately become our biggest supporters.