Preserving Conservation Gains – The Issue of Exit

Posted on March 18, 2013 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Governmental and non-governmental actors in the conservation field increasingly face the issue of “exit” from initiatives that they have undertaken.  This is good news, because the issue of exit typically arises when their interventions have achieved their conservation goals and they respond to the need to register wins and move scarce regulatory, technical, and financial resources to new problems.  For example, upon recovery of a species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider delisting the species, thus removing the strict legal protections afforded by the Act.  Similarly, non-governmental organizations that have intervened to ensure or provide funding or expert assistance for protection of species or ecosystems will want to move on when their goals have been met.

But success leaves a tough question: what happens when they withdraw?  Will their successes persist, or will their withdrawal lead to the same failure that brought them to intervene in the first place?  What factors affect the “stickiness” of successes achieved through governmental or philanthropic involvement?  The challenge is to ensure that conservation initiatives generate durable institutional arrangements that continue to yield success after the initial movers have left or reduced their presence.  And the challenge is pervasive.  For example, it is estimated that 80% of listed species are “conservation-reliant,” requiring ongoing conservation effort after delisting because threats to the species’ existence cannot be wholly eliminated. 

Conservation practitioners and scholars are beginning to tackle this issue in earnest and are coming together to discuss it in forums such as a recent conference at the University of Virginia on Making Conservation Sustainable: Institutional Design and the Natural Environment.  The work of designing sustainable conservation arrangements is inherently interdisciplinary, involving lawyers, economists and finance experts, social psychologists, political scientists, and ecologists.  It is further complicated by the wide variety of physical, biological, economic, political, and social settings in which conservation occurs.  Experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, with well-tailored arrangements likely to include a mix of approaches.  For example, some level of residual government involvement may be combined with collaborative community-based institutions, such as “friends” groups or landowner cooperatives.  The long-term success of these institutions will require that they be compatible with the history, economy, and values of the affected communities. 

Confronting the challenges of exit may lead to improved understanding of the potential of private and public-private undertakings to provide long-term solutions to conservation challenges.  And that understanding could help usher in a new generation of environmental law and policy.



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