New Study Puts Smithsonian Conservation Efforts to the Test

The findings illustrate how people-focused initiatives benefit both society and nature

Under the waves swirls a bed of sea grass. Above the water is a coastal home attached to a dock.
The Smithsonian’s Marine Conservation Program conserves beds of seagrasses throughout Central America. These dynamic marine ecosystems provide critical habitat for a range of marine and terrestrial biodiversity, building resilience in coastal communities throughout the region. Claudio Contreras-Koob / International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP)

When the environment wins, everyone wins according to a new study published earlier this month by Smithsonian researchers. The new paper, which appears in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, quantifies how several conservation efforts—which include everything from promoting sustainable agriculture practices in Gabon to preserving salmon corridors in Alaska—benefit local communities in addition to the environment. 

Although the Smithsonian is renowned for the sprawling collections housed in the National Museum of Natural History and other museums around the National Mall, the Smithsonian also operates several offsite research centers and sends scientists around the world to spearhead local conservation efforts in places like the coral reefs of Belize, the jungles of Panama and the Great Plains of North America. In the field, these scientists are working to protect biodiversity and enhance ecosystem services that promote sustainable living around the world.
In an effort to protect biodiversity and promote sustainable practices, the Smithsonian conducts conservation programs around the world. One of these programs is the Palau Orchid Conservation Initiative. By mapping the diversity of these stunning plants throughout the tropical archipelago, Smithsonian researchers are helping local communities find the right balance between ecotourism and conservation. Benjamin Crain/Smithsonian Institution

But these Smithsonian researchers are not working alone. Over the past decade, the effectiveness of these conservation initiatives has been boosted by the increasing participation of local communities. This people-focused conservation mindset is the foundation for the Smithsonian’s Working Land and Seascapes (WLS) initiative that began in 2017.

The WLS now supports 14 efforts in 13 different countries. These projects include the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud effort to reforest tracts of jungle along the Panama Canal and the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s Gabon Biodiversity Program, which aims to protect the habitat of gorillas, African forest elephants and other local wildlife.

Juvenile salmon swim in a sampling container held by Coowe Walker, manager of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Salmon and People initiative aims to preserve key salmon habitat on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to protect the fish, which has vital economic and cultural importance throughout the region. Kelsie Moore

The environmental goals of WLS programs are straightforward. But the impacts of these programs on the participating communities are more difficult to parse. So Steven Canty, an ecologist coordinating the museum’s Marine Conservation Program that aims to protect Central American coral reefs and mangroves, teamed up with other Smithsonian scientists in 2019 to put the benefits of 11 WLS programs to the test. “Conservation has broader impacts than one might expect,” Canty said.

To measure these impacts, the researchers applied the United Nations (U.N.) list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to each program. These 17 goals, which break down into nearly 170 more specific “targets,” are broadly defined by the U.N. as a global call to action to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.”

According to Canty, the impetus to adopt these sustainable development goals was to begin measuring the Smithsonian’s conservation contributions to societal well-being using the same metrics adopted by many private-sector organizations, world governments and nonprofits to guide their own work. That way, the results of this study could be compared directly to other sustainable development efforts that may not be conservation-focused. “The idea is to get us all speaking the same language, so that these other actors can better understand what we’re saying about the co-benefits of people-focused conservation,” Canty said.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute fellow Katherine Sinacore checks sap flux sensors in a teak tree as part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud program. Her research has shown that teak uses a tremendous amount of water, reducing the amount of water available to flow into streams. Sean Matteson

This cooperation is key according to co-author Jessica Deichmann, a researcher at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute who monitors biodiversity in Gabon and the Amazon. To accomplish sustainable development goals in Gabon, Deichmann and her colleagues work with private oil and forestry companies to develop more ecologically-friendly land practices. When it comes to effective conservation practices, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Deichmann said.

The team ran each of the WLS initiatives through the 169 sustainable development targets, finding that the efforts contributed to the advancement of 16 of the 17 sustainable development goals. They found that targeted environmental projects, like replanting trees or reintroducing lost species, have far reaching ecological and cultural impacts. 

One example is the National Zoo’s Great Plains Science Program, which restores pockets of North America’s prairie for species like insects and prairie songbirds. This program also benefits several Native Nations communities who partner with the Smithsonian to study how the return of bison to tribal lands helps restore the prairie ecosystem and resolve longstanding food security issues. 

Canty’s work in Central America has similar benefits for local communities: by protecting vital habitats like reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves, the Marine Conservation Program works with local communities to create healthier fisheries and stronger storm buffers. Seagrass and mangrove communities also siphon harmful carbon from the atmosphere, returning it to the ecosystem to help bolster local biodiversity.

Artisanal fisheries, like those in Central America, underpin economies and provide food security to coastal communities around the world. Improving their management not only helps to rebuild fish stocks and protect biodiversity, but also contributes to the well-being of coastal communities. Sergio Izquierda / International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP)

According to Canty, the most important work now is taking the lessons learned from these people-focused conservation projects and scaling them up for greater impact. He hopes that evaluating the WLS projects in terms of their benefits to people can help identify new points of shared interests between the Smithsonian and potential partners who can bring additional resources to bear at a crucial moment for the planet and the animals that live on it, including humans. “Ultimately the hope is that this helps encourage new collaborations with partners who are focused on sustainable development but maybe haven’t thought as much about conservation,” Canty says. 

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