Conservation Futures

Protected area management requires adaptive, future-oriented governance and planning to address the novel challenges of the future.


Global environmental change – climate change, invasive species, habitat loss and fragmentation, and urbanisation – will induce wide ranging and significant impacts from local to global scales. This will directly affect biodiversity within and around protected areas and the livelihoods of people dependent on protected areas. Despite the increasing prospect of widespread transformational change, protected area management remains focused on maintaining ecosystems and species in particular places, in a desired condition of the past. Management strategies target near term, tangible threats like poaching, habitat conversion or invasive species, and are built on seeking out more and better science, or adapting on the basis of lessons from past experience. While this works for current threats, it is insufficient to address the novel challenges of the future.

There is growing understanding that the existing frameworks underpinning protected area management is ill-equipped for rapid and transformational change. Inherent uncertainties in trying to anticipate the impacts of global environmental change cannot be completely removed by technical approaches such as modeling and assessments, or be predicted by extrapolating from recent experience. We propose addressing these challenges requires protected area governance, planning and management that is future-oriented and adaptive to change.


The Conservation Futures project will enable protected area planners and managers navigate global change by developing processes that facilitate strategic thinking and collective learning.

This requires a shift in focus from understanding the impacts of change to developing governance frameworks that enable individuals and organisations to anticipate and respond to future change. This reframing focuses on the way that people create and use knowledge; the values and preferences supported by different approaches or options; and the rules that enable conservation actors (policy makers, managers, practitioners and landholders) to respond to social, political and ecological change. Recognising this, the adaptation pathways approach provides processes for protected area planners and managers to identify the knowledge, rules and values they need to work with their constituents to navigate current and future changes.

In developing an adaptation pathway, planners and managers identify management strategies (e.g. enhancing connectivity, restoring degraded systems), planning processes (collaborative networks, land-use plans), or policy reforms (new protected areas, habitat protection) that address near term imperatives (ie poaching, habitat conversion, invasive species) and build capacity to manage long-term change through strategic thinking and collective learning. A pathways approach emphasises that adaptation is not a one off event, rather it is an ongoing process of learning, acting and reflecting in the context of uncertainty.

This project will test the following hypothesis:

Protected area governance for rapid and transformational ecosystem change is enhanced by individuals and organisations that: actively learn from multiple sources; can effectively consider short, medium and long-term futures; and can translate those considerations into meaningful decisions and actions in the present.


This project will proceed in two phases: methodological development (Phase I, June 2015-June 2017) and pilots in 3-6 countries (Phase II, TBD funding dependent).

The first phase will develop, pilot and refine initial methodologies, through an action research partnership with WWF Colombia and Parques Nacionales Colombia. Colombia was selected as the pilot based on their sophisticated approaches to climate adaptation within the WWF office. Parques Nacionales are revising their Protected Area Planning and Management Framework (PAPMF), providing a window of opportunity to pilot and refine the methodologies. We are identifying partners in the WWF network to support an initial role out of the methods in regional workshops.

Phase II will involve more in-depth work applying the methods in partnership with WWF offices and national authorities to be determined through Phase I.


The project will be designed to have parallel research-and practice-based outcomes. Expected outputs include:

  • Refined insights into the individual and organisational capacities required to support future-oriented protected area planning and management in practice;
  • A framework for protected area planners and managers to analyse how existing governance enables or constrains options for addressing future change;
  • Guidance on participatory processes for engaging key stakeholders in strategic thinking to support decisions in the short term that are consider long-term future uncertainty;
  • Materials and training workshops targeted at protected area planners and managers.


Future-oriented conservation supports flexible governance and expands the range of policy and management options through time. This project will develop fresh approaches to governance and futures thinking to identify climate adaptation pathways for protected areas. Adaptation pathways are supported by explicit and ongoing learning, acting and reflecting to develop strategic actions that can be taken in the context of uncertainty. These tools, capacity building material and conceptual analysis will support protected area managers and planners to anticipate, respond to and mitigate the impacts of global environmental change.


Australian National University, CSIRO, WWF-Colombia, Parques Nacionales Colombia

Project Leadership

Carina Wyborn (Luc Hoffmann Institute), Lorrae van Kerkhoff (ANU), Michael Dunlop (CSIRO), Oscar Guevara (WWF-Colombia), developed with support from Nigel Dudley (Equilibrium Consulting).

Main image: Colombia © Pablo Corral / WWF

Alejandro GuizarConservation Futures