Inequity in ecosystem service delivery: socioeconomic gaps in the public-private conservation network
Conservation areas, both public and private, are critical tools to protect biodiversity and deliver important ecosystem services (ES) to society. Although societal benefits from such ES are increasingly used to promote public support of conservation, the number of beneficiaries, their identity, and the magnitude of benefits are largely unknown for the vast majority of conservation areas in the United States public-private conservation network. The location of conservation areas in relation to people strongly influences the direction and magnitude of ES flows as well as the identity of beneficiaries. We analyzed benefit zones, the areas to which selected ES could be conveyed to beneficiaries, to assess who benefits from a typical conservation network. Better knowledge of ES flows and beneficiaries will help land conservationists make a stronger case for the broad collateral benefits of conservation and help to address issues of social-environmental justice. To evaluate who benefits the most from the current public-private conservation network, we delineated the benefit zones for local ES (within 16 km) that are conveyed along hydrological paths from public (federal and state) and private (easements) conservation lands in the states of North Carolina and Virginia, USA. We also discuss the challenges and demonstrate an approach for delineating nonhydrological benefits that are passively conveyed to beneficiaries. We mapped and compared the geographic distribution of benefit zones within and among conservation area types. We further compared beneficiary demographics across benefit zones of the conservation area types and found that hydrological benefit zones of federal protected areas encompass disproportionately fewer minority beneficiaries compared to statewide demographic patterns. In contrast, benefit zones of state protected areas and private easements encompassed a much greater proportion of minority beneficiaries (~22–25%). Benefit zones associated with private conservation lands included beneficiaries of significantly greater household income than benefit zones of other types of conservation areas. Our analysis of ES flows revealed significant socioeconomic gaps in how the current public-private conservation network benefits the public. These gaps warrant consideration in regional conservation plans and suggest that private conservation initiatives may be best suited for responding to the equity challenge. Enhancing the ecosystem benefits and the equity of benefit delivery from private conservation networks could build public and political support for long-term conservation strategies and ultimately enhance conservation efficacy.