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Biological Conservation 143 (2010) 2–4

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Letter to the Editor

Can we determine conservation priorities without clear vation features are more likely to have non-zero values. In a simple
objectives? example with 17 conservation features, 2000 areas and a target of
15% representation, we found that with 25 solutions (the number
used by Wilhere et al.), 28% of the areas had an estimated irre-
Wilhere et al. (2008) recently proposed a new index, ‘‘average placeability of zero. This dropped to 15% with 100 runs and 2%
optimacity”, to guide investment in biodiversity conservation. with 10,000 runs.
They suggested that average optimacity, by being goal-indepen- Regardless of the estimation technique, the critique itself is
dent, overcomes the subjectivity in target-based approaches. We more properly leveled at the target-based or minimum set ap-
argue that conservation value cannot be informed by average opti- proach to conservation planning. In its basic formulation, the
macity because the notion of value is inherently goal-dependent. objective of the minimum set problem is to represent each feature
We begin with a clarification of current terminology around con- to its target amount while minimizing cost. After targets for fea-
servation value, then give an illustration of how average optima- tures have been achieved, areas with only those features provide
city might actually confound decision-making. no additional value. Other formulations of the conservation plan-
Spatial conservation prioritization identifies areas for conserva- ning problem that utilize continuous benefit functions address
tion action that collectively meet a set of explicit conservation the concerns of Wilhere et al. (Carwardine et al., 2009). In this
objectives (hereafter ‘‘targets”). Within this framework, value is framework, any area that contains any occurrence of a feature of
the contribution of an area to targets. ‘‘Irreplaceability” (Pressey interest will always have conservation value, no matter how much
et al., 1993) is one measure of value. While Pressey et al. (1993) is already protected.
were principally focused on representation targets, their defini- To address the perceived problem of different objectives yield-
tions of irreplaceability were broader: ‘‘the potential contribution ing different estimates of value, Wilhere et al.’s average optimacity
of a [n area] to a reservation goal” or ‘‘the extent to which the op- is based on averaging selection frequency from Marxan solutions
tions for reservation are lost if the [area] is lost”. with different conservation targets. They assert that the result is
Wilhere et al. correctly state that Marxan’s selection frequency efficient, objective, and meaningful. We disagree on all counts. Effi-
(Ball and Possingham, 2000) and C-Plan’s irreplaceability (Pressey ciency relates to achieving a target at minimum cost or maximiz-
et al., 2009) are used synonymously, but are estimated differ- ing benefit within cost constraints and is undefined without
ently. Marxan uses simulated annealing and incorporates hetero- specific targets. However subjective targets might be, objectivity
geneous costs and varying emphasis on spatial compactness. does not emerge from their absence. Varying targets might be use-
C-Plan uses a statistical estimator, with constraints only on the ful to explore their implications for policy, but our experience is
number of areas allowed in the solution. While we sympathize that most decision-makers want advice on appropriate targets
with Wilhere et al.’s desire for semantic clarity, we believe that rather than measures of something that purports to be ‘‘value”
a new term for Marxan’s estimate (‘‘optimacity”) creates an without defined targets. More generally, the very meaning of value
unnecessary precedent. Since (and even before) its incorporation is undefined without specific targets or other kinds of objectives.
into the conservation planning vernacular, irreplaceability has One of the breakthroughs of systematic conservation planning
been estimated with various techniques for diverse objectives was to require planners to state what they mean to achieve. This
(Table 1). Using optimacity to refer to Marxan’s selection fre- can be uncomfortable, but leads to meaningful estimates of value
quency implies the need for separate terms for other estimation and informed debate.
techniques and objectives, and this would create much unneces- A related issue is whether average optimacity leads to different
sary confusion. patterns of value than irreplaceability derived from a single set of
Wilhere et al. also argue that Marxan’s irreplaceability is a poor targets. To explore this, we looked at the Cape Floristic Region in
measure of value because it changes with representation targets: South Africa. Pressey et al. (2003) formulated quantitative targets
‘‘the fact that some [areas] go from zero optimacity to positive there for 102 broad habitat units (BHUs), based on heterogeneity,
optimacity demonstrates that this index is somewhat misleading vulnerability, and extent of prior clearing (Pressey et al., 2003).
– at low representation targets, some [areas] are shown to have We built a Marxan database with these 102 BHUs as conservation
no conservation value when they actually do (Wilhere et al., features, and calculated both irreplaceability using their 2003
2008).” This argument misinterprets Marxan’s estimation targets and average optimacity. The spatial divergence in
technique and the notion of value derived from targets. To select conservation values (Fig. 1) would lead to dramatically different
representative areas, Marxan uses simulating annealing, an algo- allocations of resources. Only 20% of planning units with maxi-
rithm that uses stochastic processes to find near-optimal solutions. mum irreplaceability using the 2003 targets appeared in the top
The stochastic search means that the irreplaceability estimate quartile of average optimacity. Average optimacity diverted atten-
depends on the number of solutions generated. As selection tion from most of the areas containing severely depleted BHUs
frequency is derived from more solutions, areas containing conser- and/or BHUs at risk from further loss of biodiversity. The result

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Letter to the Editor / Biological Conservation 143 (2010) 2–4 3

Table 1
Methods for measuring or estimating irreplaceability, and analogues of irreplaceability not based on achievement of quantitative targets.

Method Source
Exact measurement
All optimal representative sets of areas from exhaustive combinatorial enumeration Pressey et al. (1994)
All optimal representative sets of areas from integer programming Csuti et al. (1997)
All optimal representative sets of areas from exhaustive stepwise enumeration Tsuji and Tsubaki (2004)
Statistical estimation based on frequency distributions of features Ferrier et al. (2000)
Stepwise calculation of maximum rarity of unrepresented features Pressey et al. (1994)
Subsets of representative combinations: random selection of representative sets Ferrier et al. (2000)
Subsets of representative combinations: multiple stepwise ‘‘minimum” setsa Tsuji and Tsubaki (2004)
Subsets of representative combinations: multiple stepwise ‘‘minimum” sets with random seed areasa Rebelo and Siegfried (1992)
Subsets of representative combinations: multiple stepwise ‘‘minimum” sets after random removal of areasa Linke et al. (2008)
Subsets of representative combinations: multiple ‘‘minimum” sets with simulated annealinga Ball and Possingham (2000)
Analogous measures and related concepts
Irreplaceability: difficulty of replacing a biological assemblage Coesel (1975)
Irreplaceability: degree of isolation of areas in multivariate space Belbin (1995)
Irreplaceability: lack of optional areas or features in terms of rarity or ecological function Cole and Landres (1996)
Irreplaceability: essential areas for solving the maximal covering problemb Kiester et al. (1996)
Irreplaceability: value of an area as source habitat, defined by population growth rate Noss et al. (2002)
Irreplaceability: essential areas to solve the set covering problem or the maximal covering problemb Jacobi et al. (2007)
None of these methods guarantee optimal or true minimum sets; sets of areas might vary in size from optimal to somewhat larger.
The maximal covering problem is to maximize the number of features represented in a set of areas that is too small to achieve all targets (Jacobi et al., 2007). Identifying
sets of areas that achieve targets is the set covering problem (Jacobi et al., 2007).

Fig. 1. Difference in relative conservation priority between average optimacity and irreplaceability based on targets from Pressey et al. (2003). Red values indicate higher
value with Pressey et al. targets. Green indicates higher value with average optimacity. ‘‘Average optimacity” was estimated with 10 ‘‘equal conservation intervals” for land
types (Wilhere et al., 2008). Existing protected areas are shown in black. We assessed relative value from each method as the percentile rank of the planning unit. We then
calculated difference in value as the percentile rank from Pressey et al. targets less the percentile rank from average optimacity. (For interpretation of the references to colour
in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)

would be similar with priorities based on average optimacity embedded in the 2003 targets. We agree with Wilhere et al. that
combined with vulnerability (Wilhere et al., 2008). Average opti- prioritization demands tough choices. We add that average opti-
macity would bypass the expert judgment and policy advice macity allows planners to avoid them.
4 Letter to the Editor / Biological Conservation 143 (2010) 2–4

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