Credit: Claudio Contreras-Koob / International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP)

New research published recently in the journal Conservation Science and Practice shows conservation work led by Smithsonian researchers brings tangible benefits to local communities, government agencies and the private sector as well as the environment in the United States and in countries across the globe, including Gabon, Honduras and Panama. 

The Smithsonian is globally known as an institution that generates scientific knowledge about the natural world and serves as an irreplaceable resource for scientists through its vast collections. What is less known is the Smithsonian does not only send out scientists to study and catalog the natural life of the planet, it also supports conservation work and builds capacity to protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services that support sustainable living around the world.

Over the past decade, researchers from across the Smithsonian have increasingly emphasized the critical importance of empowering and partnering with local communities to conserve biodiversity. This approach became an initiative called Working Land and Seascapes (WLS). WLS launched in 2017 to advance people-focused conservation with the goal of fostering healthy, resilient and productive landscapes and seascapes for the benefit of people and nature. The WLS initiative now supports more than 14 projects in 13 countries.

To begin efforts to quantify, measure and communicate the ways these conservation projects benefit people and nature, the new study evaluated 11 WLS projects. To guide these evaluations, researchers turned to the United Nations (U.N.) list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These 17 goals, which break down into 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.”

Beginning in 2019, the Smithsonian convened conservation project leaders from its National Zoo and Conservation Biology InstituteEnvironmental Research CenterTropical Research InstituteNational Museum of Natural History and Marine Station to evaluate their respective conservation efforts. 

Lead study author Steven Canty, Smithsonian’s coordinator of the Marine Conservation Program, said the impetus for utilizing the SDG framework was to begin measuring Smithsonian conservation contributions to societal well-being using the same metrics adopted by many private-sector organizations, world governments and nonprofits that may not necessarily be focused on conserving the environment. 

“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. “And 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.”

After carefully vetting the projects’ activities and likely outcomes against each of the 169 targets identified by the SDG framework, the team found that the WLS network has measurably contributed to the advancement of 16 of 17 of the goals and nearly half of the more specific targets.

These results were encouraging, Canty said. “Conservation has broader impacts than one might expect, and in many cases, those impacts point to opportunities for stronger collaboration with totally different sectors.”

According to Canty, the most important work now is taking the lessons learned on 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. 

Below are a few examples of the Smithsonian’s conservation work and brief explanations of the kinds of benefits to people that are captured by the recent study.

NameGreat Plains Science Program
Location: North American Great Plains 
Duration: 2018 to present 
Smithsonian staff contact/lead: Andrew Jakes, National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Description: With an ecosystem that supports an abundance of wildlife, from mighty bison to tiny insects, the prairie is one of North America’s greatest treasures. But decades of habitat loss and fragmentation, coupled with species extirpations, have drastically changed this landscape and affected the people, plants and animals that call it home. Today, Smithsonian scientists are collaborating with multiple partners, including the American Prairie and Native Nations communities to help understand, restore and conserve this landscape. 
Benefits to people: Smithsonian personnel continue to work with federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics and private landowners who all value this significant landscape—one of the last remaining large intact grassland ecosystems in the world. Notably, conservation research and programs include collaborating with Native Nations to study the impact of widespread restoration of bison to tribal lands throughout the Northern Great Plains. Bison restoration can help restore the prairie ecosystem while improving the long-running issue of food insecurity and food sovereignty for Native Nations and may help to mitigate adverse impacts to traditional agricultural systems due to climate change. Smithsonian ecologists are developing courses in conjunction with Aaniiih Nakoda College to expose local students to a variety of field methods in ecology research.

NameMarine Conservation Program
Location: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras
Duration: 2012 to present 
Smithsonian staff contact/leadSteven CantyNational Museum of Natural History
Description: This program encompasses several projects focused on protecting and enhancing coral reefs, designing new marine protected areas, developing sustainable fisheries and restoring and managing mangrove ecosystems. The program emphasizes local leadership in the planning and implementation of these interventions. 
Benefits to people: Healthier reefs and marine protected areas can result in more productive fisheries over time, and creating plans to make existing fisheries more sustainable will ensure they can provide food security and economic opportunity for years to come. Improved conservation and restoration of mangroves will help protect coastal communities from extreme weather and can mitigate climate change through carbon capture and storage while also enhancing some fisheries and biodiversity.

Name: Agua Salud
Location: Panama
Duration: 2008 to present 
Smithsonian staff contact/leadJefferson HallSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Description: The Agua Salud program, with support from the Panama Canal Authority, government agencies, private donors and NGOs, focuses on reforesting large areas of the Panama Canal watershed in collaboration with local ranchers, farmers and Indigenous groups. This entails developing forest-restoration guides, understanding water dynamics and running experiments on the potential benefits of Smart Reforestation and native species.
Benefits to people: Restoring forests protects the region’s natural heritage and has a host of benefits when it comes to water. Healthy forest ecosystems can improve regional water quality and, over time, water access, while also protecting nearby cities from flooding and landslides. Encouraging mixed-use agriculture and forestry operations could enhance local livelihoods by boosting yields while providing many of the same water-related benefits associated with reforestation. In the future, land owners may also be eligible to receive payments for carbon credits.

NameGabon Biodiversity Program  
Location: Gabon
Duration: 2001 to present
Smithsonian staff contact/leadAnna FeistnerNational Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Description: The Gabon Biodiversity Program works to conserve biodiversity and safeguard ecosystems in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, which includes coastal and upland forests, wetlands and savannas. Home to western lowland gorillas and African forest elephants, these ecosystems also provide nesting grounds for four species of sea turtles and many resources and services for local people in southwest Gabon. Educating school children about biodiversity and training adults in sustainable agriculture practices can improve resource management and discourage slash-and-burn methods that result in deforestation and human–wildlife conflicts. Further activities to protect wildlife include working with local wildlife rangers to eliminate illegal animal traps. 
Benefits to people: Sharing knowledge about biodiversity can lead to the valorization and conservation of nature. Adopting sustainable agricultural practices helps farmers prolong farming in the same plantation, reducing the need for labor-intensive and expensive land clearance. Reduced costs and increased yields promote more sustainable agriculture and can boost livelihoods and enhance food security. Reducing illegal traps protect people and animals: humans can be snared, and injured wildlife can be dangerous. 

NameSalmon and People Project
Location: Alaska
Duration: 2005 to present
Smithsonian staff contact/lead: Dennis Whigham, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Description: Healthy salmon populations are the economic and cultural “heartbeat” of communities in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. Researchers from the Smithsonian and partners with the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve are working to understand and preserve key habitat and corridors that salmon rely upon throughout their lifespan. To encourage sustainable decision making, they engage with local stakeholders, convening workshops and hosting field trips for fishing industry and Alaska Native leaders.
Benefits to people: The Kenai watershed and streams support sport fisheries and millions of dollars in economic activity related to commercial salmon fisheries. Preserving these habitats helps ensure an abundant and reliable salmon population, enabling Kenai residents to protect their food security and their cultural identities.

NamePalau Orchid Conservation Initiative
Location: Republic of Palau
Duration: 2017 to present
Smithsonian staff contact/lead: Dennis Whigham, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Description: Palau is a biodiversity hotspot, home to many plant species that are found nowhere else. The island of Babeldaob alone has over 30 endemic orchid species. The Smithsonian and partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, are working to gather data about Palau’s unique biodiversity. Scientists are surveying the orchids and the microscopic soil fungi the orchids need to germinate and grow, with the goal of creating a Palau-wide inventory that can help them conserve their native orchids. 
Benefits to People: Palau is famous among tourists for its aquatic attractions, with some of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites in the world. However, its attractions on land are less well known. At the same time, the people of Palau are very anxious to protect their environment. The Smithsonian is working closely with local partners on the island of Palau as they seek to balance the benefits of ecotourism with preserving Palau’s natural heritage and biodiversity.