Conserving biodiversity by conserving land

Stephen J. Polasky, Christian A. Vossler

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Introduction Land management decisions on public and private lands affect important ecosystem processes and functions with potentially far-reaching and long-term consequences. Humans are now managers of much of the habitable land of the earth. Over half of all land that is not tundra, ice, boreal, desert, or rock is devoted to agriculture (Tilman et al. 2001). Including managed forests, the majority of habitable land on earth is actively managed for human uses. The expected increase of two to three billion people over the next 50 years will further increase human land-use needs. In a recent book, biologist Simon Levin states: ‘the central environmental challenge of our time is embodied in the staggering loss, both recent and projected, of biological diversity…' (Levin 1999, p.1). Though other factors, such as the introduction of exotic species, over-harvesting, pollution, and climate change, contribute to the loss of biodiversity, habitat loss is thought to be the primary reason for the loss of terrestrial biodiversity (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981; Wilson 1988). In fact, a common method biologists use to predict the number of species present in a given land area is through construction of a ‘species-area curve,' which is based on empirical evidence linking the amount of habitat and the number of species found in the habitat (MacArthur and Wilson 1967). Several studies have found that the current rate of species extinction is several orders of magnitude above the ‘natural’ or background rate of extinction (National Research Council 1995; Pimm et al. 1995). Given land conversion trends, projections into the future are for even higher extinction rates (Wilson 1988). In the U.S., the Endangered Species Act has focused attention on the relationship between land use and species conservation. Under the Endangered Species Act, otherwise lawful land uses may be prohibited if they would result in harm to a species listed as endangered or threatened. Included in activities that cause harm are land uses that significantly modify habitat in ways that kill or injure listed species or interfere with essential activities such as breeding, feeding or sheltering. A number of recent high-profile endangered species cases have highlighted actual and potential restrictions on various land uses, including timber harvesting and urban development. These cases include timber harvest restrictions to protect the spotted owl and marbelled murralet in the Pacific Northwest, potentially wide-ranging restrictions on urban and rural land use to protect salmon from Washington to California, restrictions on land development in Southern California to protect the California gnatcatcher, Stephens’ kangaroo rat and other species, and timber harvest restrictions in the Southeast to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEconomics of Rural Land-Use Change
EditorsKathleen P. Bell, Kevin Boyle, Jonathan Rubin
Place of PublicationBurlington, VT
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781351941815
ISBN (Print)9780754609834
StatePublished - 2006

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Kathleen P. Bell, Kevin J. Boyle and Jonathan Rubin 2006. All rights reserved.


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