Environmental problems and their solutions are determined by the complex ways in which social and ecological systems interact. Yet knowledge on these interactions and the challenges they pose to biodiversity conservation is scarce. Analytical and planning approaches to help understand and account for these challenges are needed. This is particularly important in the context of conservation initiatives that take a collaborative multi-stakeholder approach to decision-making. Such initiatives face numerous challenges, including the problem of fit – when governance systems do not fit or match the characteristics of the biophysical system. In this thesis novel methodological approaches and existing social-ecological system frameworks are employed to investigate the problem of fit in the context of biodiversity conservation, and to demonstrate how the interactions between social and ecological systems can be accounted for in conservation planning. This thesis represents an important contribution to social-ecological research.
I examine the relevance of the problem of fit to biodiversity conservation through a review of the challenges for the science of conservation planning related to a particular type of ‘fit challenge’: scale mismatch. A scale mismatch occurs when the scales for planning and implementing conservation actions do not match the scale of biophysical processes (Chapter 2, published in Conservation Biology). I identify how scale mismatches arise in association with the different stages of conservation planning (e.g. problem assessment, formulation of actions). I find that this type of fit challenge can result in partial solutions, ineffective actions, or actions that are not implemented. This review highlights the need for researchers and practitioners to understand and account for fit challenges in conservation research and management, and suggestions are provided on how this might be achieved.
I investigate the problem of fit through an assessment of the capacity for collaborative conservation initiatives to address three key challenges associated to social-ecological fit: spatial scale mismatch (chapters 3 and 4), the common management of areas (chapter 4), and the management of interconnected ecological units (chapter 4). In these empirical studies I analyse data collected through semi-structured interviews and a survey of stakeholders involved in ‘Gondwana Link’, - a large-scale conservation initiative that aims to restore ecological connectivity in the south west of Australia.
I characterise the interactions between stakeholders in this initiative as a conservation social network. I assess if the structure of the interactions enable the coordination of plans and actions across scales of planning and management (Chapter 3, published in Conservation Letters). I apply a novel network theoretical approach to statistically analyse the different forms of stakeholder interactions, including cross-scale collaboration. I find that the structure of stakeholder interactions predisposed cross-scale collaboration for invasive animal control, an action where coordination of activities is necessary. For revegetation activities I find little evidence of collaboration across scales. This result suggests that addressing spatial scale mismatch could improve effectiveness of revegetation efforts. To achieve this, the conservation initiative should provide support to those stakeholders acting in a ‘scale-bridging’ role.
I extend the social network conceptualisation developed in Chapter 3 to incorporate interactions between elements of the ecological system (i.e. the level of connectivity between vegetation patches) and the conservation social network (Chapter 4, submitted to Global Environmental Change). I characterise the ecological interactions, the interactions between stakeholders, and the ways stakeholders are linked to different parts of these ecosystems (i.e. management in one or more locations) as a social-ecological network. Employing new theory and methodological approaches I identify different social-ecological network configurations that capture the hypothesised ways in which collaborative approaches could address specific social-ecological fit challenges, including the common management of areas, spatial scale mismatch and the management of interconnected ecological units. I apply new statistical models of multi-level networks to test the relative importance of possible social-ecological configurations in the observed social-ecological network. I find that co-management occurs when stakeholders manage the same spatially defined ecological resource, but not when they manage different yet interconnected ecological resources. This implies that Gondwana Link’s governance structure lacks capacity to detect the effects of management actions that could affect outcomes beyond the ecological unit to which the management action is applied. This study provides empirical support for how collaborative approaches to governance can address the problem of fit, but also reveals that collaborative approaches do not necessarily solve all challenges associated with social-ecological fit. Through this approach I highlight that integrating social with ecological information can lead to more accurate assessments of the problem of fit compared to an approach that considers the social and ecological system in isolation.
In Chapter 5 I further explore the value of integrating social with ecological information when making and implementing conservation decisions (Chapter 5, submitted to Biological Conservation). I explore how a social-ecological system framework can be utilised to facilitate the systematic consideration and integration of relevant ecological and social data to determine areas of conservation opportunity. I show how this approach can be used to identify priority areas that require different implementation strategies, from areas that are suitable for immediate engagement to areas requiring implementation over the longer term in order to increase on-the-ground capacity and identify mechanisms to incentivise implementation. This study highlights the value of applying a social-ecological framework to conservation planning, helping translate priorities for action into implementation strategies that account for the social-ecological complexity of conservation problems.
This thesis addresses one of the greatest challenges faced by conservation researchers and practitioners: understanding and accounting for the social-ecological complexity that characterises most global environmental problems. This thesis makes theoretical and empirical contributions to research on the problem of fit that extend beyond the conservation planning field. It provides empirical support for how collaboration approaches to governance can enable the coordination of actions across different management scales, and demonstrates how interactions between the social and ecological systems can be accounted for in conservation planning decisions, and in assessments of the effectiveness of environmental governance arrangements.