The University of Helsinki, Metsähallitus Natural Heritage Services, the Finnish Environment Institute, and the Finnish Forest Centre formed a collaborative project aimed at finding protected area (PA)network expansions priorities in southern Finland. Zonation, software for spatial conservation prioritization, was used to identify the most suitable sites for additional forest conservation. Zonation analyses accounted for the ecological quality of habitats and landscape-level connectivity. All analyses were based on forest inventory data, which were not originally collected for conservation purposes. The information provided by the analyses - including but not restricted to rank priority maps - is being used to support conservation decision-making in a national conservation programme called METSO. The results can also be used to allocate conservation actions other than protection, such as restoration, or to show where other types of land use, such as forestry, have lower impact on biodiversity. Crucially, experts and stakeholders were included early on in the prioritization process. This provided a platform for co-learning about the objectives of conservation, the involved ecological phenomenon, and the Zonation results that were produced in the analysis. Using advanced computational tools and a broad set of input data, in a way that is also repeatable in the future, required a significant amount of capacity building in each the organizations that were involved in the project.
In 2006, the Finnish government launched a forest biodiversity conservation programme called METSO, in order to halt the ongoing decline of Finnish forest biodiversity. The programme includes different conservation instruments. The main program objective is to expand the protected area network by approximately 100,000 ha on private lands and approximately 25,000 ha on public land in southern Finland, where the PA network is very sparse.
Areas identified as highly valuable in terms of their conservation value or connectivity are potential locations for PA expansions. Selecting PA expansions that are ecologically complementary and well-connected to existing protected areas has often been a difficult task. Furthermore, there is typically a chronic lack of suitable data, especially over large geographical extents. On the other hand, areas that are least valuable for conservation are potentially suitable for other land use forms. Such prioritization can be done using spatial conservation prioritization tools. However, constructing informative prioritization analyses, interpreting and communicating the results, and providing information relevant for decision-making all require that decision-makers, experts, and stakeholders participate in various stages of the process.
- Methodological development (Zonation) and developing a process model: The technical capabilities of Zonation had to be improved for the project team to be able to analyze and prioritize the entire implementation region in a resolution relevant for operational conservation management. In addition, new connectivity features within Zonation were implemented to account for connectivity between forest types and to existing protected areas. A process model for planning and running different parts of the prioritization (data pre-processing, Zonation analyses, interpretation of results) was also established to make the process more transparent and repeatable.
- Incorporating the whole landscape in the prioritization process: The main objective of the project within the context of METSO was to find the most suitable locations for protected area expansions. Accounting for connectivity means that protected areas are affected by the amount and quality of the different habitats that surround them. Conversely, large and good-quality protected areas positively affect areas close to them. Regardless of the land tenure (e.g. private or public), it is important that the landscape as a whole is included in the analyses, using the best possible data.
- Improving the knowledge transfer between different organizations in administration, management, and academia: Many increasingly sophisticated tools are being developed in the academia to tackle scientific and practical conservation problems. However, these tools often do not make it to the conservation implementation phase of a project because of various reasons. These include friction in adoption new techniques, and the difficulties in effectively communicating both objectives and results. Knowledge transfer within and between different sectors is therefore crucially important.
- Zonation can be successfully used to locate well-informed national-scale forest conservation priorities: Both quantitative forest inventory data and expert knowledge can be used as inputs in Zonation to produce informative conservation priorities. The utility of the results, however, depends on the details of the conservation objectives, the data available, and analysis features used (e.g. connectivity). Data availability can severely restrict the usefulness of the analyses undertaken and therefore open access the best data available needs to be secured.
- Accounting for connectivity may entail trade-offs in quality: Accounting for connectivity has ecological and logistic justifications. Promoting ecological connectivity enhances the persistence of species across the landscape. Logistically, considering the spatial configuration of conservation actions can often reduce per-unit expenses, thereby promoting cost-efficiency. Strongly promoting connectivity can increase the priority of well-connected medium quality sites at the expense of isolated high-quality sites. Accounting for connectivity therefore entails trade-offs that need to be explicitly considered.
- Prioritization analyses are only a small part of the whole conservation planning process: Running a conservation prioritization analysis with a tool like Zonation is only a small part of the whole planning process. It is also essential to work together with decision-makers and stakeholders to set clear and achievable objectives for the prioritization, which can take time. Additionally, collating and pre-processing the needed spatial data is typically the most time-consuming part of the process.
- Creating meaningful products that can be used by the practitioners is important: If the right questions are not asked, then it is very difficult to provide useful answers that support conservation decision-making. It is also very important to identify clear objectives. Furthermore, the technical outputs of a program such as Zonation often have little use without additional interpretation and packaging into planning products. Technical limitations may greatly hinder the use of results, if there are not enough resources to support the end-users (e.g. training of basic GIS skills). Projects such as this must work with practitioners and other end-users is to establish what the desired planning products that should result from the analysis.
- Expansion of the protected area network on state-owned land covering approximately 10,000 ha of biodiversity-rich forest habitats: The project delivered rank priority maps and a list of the most ecologically suitable sites. These data were used to establish protected area expansions on state-owned land covering 10,000 ha. A similar project executed by Metsähallitus in 2012-2014, resulted in the protection of an additional 14,000 ha. Its analysis built on the methods and processes developed in this project. Currently the results of the project are also being used to prioritize potential expansion sites within the context of METSO on private land.
- Tool for spatial conservation prioritization: The project established a template for using Zonation in spatial conservation prioritization of valuable forest locations. Furthermore, it also established a process model (including components like pre-processing of the data and interpreting the results) that has been applied in similar prioritization projects in different habitats (e.g. peatlands). At the same time, the capacity to use and repeat the analyses within the organizations responsible for conservation management was increased.
- Increased collaboration and knowledge transfer between organizations: The main funder of the project, the Finnish Ministry of Environment, has pointed out on several occasions that the major outcome of the project has been increased collaboration. Organizations responsible for conservation and forest management do not necessarily collaborate as much as they could. Setting up the Zonation analysis, and using the results, provided much needed common ground for knowledge transfer between these two sectors. In addition, the strict requirement of clearly defining objectives has made many preferences and values more explicit.