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Conservation in Practice


Conservation Biology, Pages 12701275
Volume 17, No. 5, October 2003

A Checklist for Wildlands Network Designs


The Wildlands Project and Department of Biology, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 328162368,


Systematic conservation planning requires rigorous methods. Methodological rigor and scientific
defensibility are enhanced by conceptual frameworks, standards, and criteria for guiding and evaluating in-
dividual plans. The Wildlands Project is developing wildlands network designs in various regions across
North America, based on the goals of rewildingrestoration of wilderness qualities and intact food webs
and biodiversity conservation. The project employs such modern conservation planning tools as spatially ex-
plicit habitat and population models and site-selection algorithms. I created a checklist to assist staff, contrac-
tors, and cooperators with the Wildlands Project in the development of regional conservation assessments
and wildlands network designs that are consistent with currently accepted standards for science-based con-
servation planning. The checklist also has proven useful in the peer review of plans. The checklist consists of
eight general standards, each of which includes several specific criteria that relate to the qualifications of
staff, choice of biodiversity surrogates and goals, methodological comprehensiveness and rigor, replicability,
analytic rigor, peer review, and overall quality of scholarship. Application of the checklist is meant to be flex-
ible and to encourage creativity and innovation. Nevertheless, every plan must be scientifically defensible
and must make the best use of available data, staff, and resources. Moreover, some degree of consistency is re-
quired to link individual plans together into a continental-scale network. The checklist may provide a tem-
plate that other conservation organizations, agencies, scientists, and activists can adapt to their programs.

Key Words:

biodiversity, conservation planning, focal species, representation, reserve design, site selection, wildlands
Lista de Control para el Diseo de Redes de Tierras Silvestres


La planeacin de conservacin sistemtica requiere de mtodos rigurosos. El rigor metodolgico
y la defensibilidad cientfica son reforzadas por marcos conceptuales, normas y criterios para guiar y eval-
uar planes individuales. El Proyecto Wildlands est desarrollando diseos de redes de tierras silvestres en
varias regiones de Norteamrica, con base en metas de restauracin de cualidades silvestres y redes alimenti-
cias intactas y conservacin de la biodiversidad. El proyecto emplea muchas de las herramientas modernas
de planeacin de conservacin tales como modelos de hbitat y poblaciones espacialmente explcitos y al-
goritmos de seleccin de sitios. Compuse una lista de control para asistir al personal, contratistas y colabora-
dores del Proyecto Wildlands en el desarrollo de valoraciones regionales de conservacin y en el diseo de re-
des de tierras silvestres que son consistentes con las normas de planeacin cientfica de conservacin
aceptadas actualmente. La lista de control tambin ha sido til para la revisin por pares de los planes. La
lista contiene ocho normas generales, cada una de las cuales incluye varios criterios especficos que se rela-
cionan con la capacitacin del personal, seleccin de substitutos y metas de biodiversidad, comprensin y
rigor metodolgico, replicabilidad, rigor analtico, revisin por pares y calidad general de escolaridad. La
aplicacin de la lista es flexible y alienta la creatividad e innovacin. Sin embargo, cada plan debe ser cient-
ficamente defendible y debe hacer el mejor uso de datos disponibles, personal y recursos. Ms aun, se re-
quiere de cierto nivel de consistencia para ligar los planes individuales a una red de escala continental. La
lista puede proporcionar un templete que otras organizaciones, agencias, cientficos y activistas pueden
adaptar a sus programas de conservacin.

Palabras Clave:

biodiversidad, planeacin de conservacin, especies focales, representacin, diseo de reservas,

seleccin de sitios, tierras silvestres

Paper submitted November 11, 2002; revised manuscript accepted March 28, 2003.
Conservation Biology
Volume 17, No. 5, October 2003

Noss Checklist for Reserve Design



As broad-scale conservation planning evolves, efforts are
underway to make the process more systematic, scientif-
ically defensible, and rigorous. These efforts include the
establishment of conceptual frameworks for planning
and the setting of standards and criteria to guide and
evaluate individual plans (Groves et al. 2000, 2002; Mar-
gules & Pressey 2000; Poiani et al. 2000). Although con-
servation biologists recognize that each case study is in
many ways unique, there are enough commonalities
among cases that a degree of standardization of planning
methodology is useful. Here I present a checklist used
by a conservation organization, the Wildlands Project,
for quality control of its regional wildlands network de-
signs (WNDs).
The Wildlands Project is a long-term effort to protect
and restore the ecological integrity of North America.
Most of the planning thus far has taken place in the
western United States and Canada, northern Mexico,
and the northeastern United States and Canadian mari-
time provinces. Formed in 1991, the Wildlands Project
has involved a mixture of scientists and activists commit-
ted to ambitious, long-term conservation (Foreman et al.
1992; Noss 1992). Compared with other conservation
groups, the project places more emphasis on maintain-
ing, buffering, and connecting existing wilderness areas;
rewilding landscapes that have been compromised by
such factors as habitat fragmentation and loss of large
carnivores and natural disturbance regimes; and com-
municating the ecological values of wilderness (Soul &
Noss 1998; Soul & Terborgh 1999; Foreman et al.


, 2000


As a means to the end of rewilding North America, the
Wildlands Project has consistently invoked the concept of
a continental-scale network of core reserves connected by
broad habitat linkages (Noss 1992; Soul & Terborgh 1999).
The continental-scale network, in turn, is composed of a
linked system of regional-scale WNDs, most of which are
organized into subcontinental megalinkages. Protecting
and restoring populations of large carnivores and other po-
tential umbrella and keystone species has been a dominant
theme of all WNDs. Reconciling the rewilding approach,
with its emphasis on carnivores, other large animals, and
broad-scale natural processes, with the more traditional
methods of biodiversity conservation has been one of the
greatest challenges for the Wildlands Project, but it is also
what distinguishes its approach from that of most other
conservation groups (Soul & Noss 1998). The current
WND methodology integrates three general approaches to
conservation planning that, in the past, usually have been
applied separately: (1) protection of special elements; (2)
representation of environmental variation; and (3) conser-
vation of focal species (see Noss et al. 1999, 2002). More
information on the Wildlands Project can be obtained
from the website:
The checklist presented below has proven useful for
guiding the development of WNDs along scientifically
defensible paths and for assuring some consistency
among WNDs developed for different regions. In addi-
tion, the checklist provides a practical and convenient
means for peer reviewing WNDs. For example, the
checklist was used to peer review a plan for the state of
Maine (Long et al. 2002) and resulted in a revision that
relied on more-defensible species-habitat models and
other biodiversity surrogates than earlier drafts. The
checklist also guided development of the WND for the
New Mexico highlands ( Foreman et al. 2003) and sev-
eral other plans in preparation. I present the checklist
here, to a broader audience, without pretense that this is
the one best way to do conservation planning. Rather, I
hope that the general approach and some of the criteria
can be adapted by other scientists, activists, organiza-
tions, and agencies involved in regional and continental
conservation planning to help make their demanding
jobs somewhat easier.

The Checklist

I created the checklist to help staff, contractors, and co-
operators with the Wildlands Project develop regional
conservation assessments and WNDs that are consistent
with currently accepted standards for systematic, sci-
ence-based conservation planning. The checklist con-
sists of eight general standards, each of which includes
several specific criteria. A plan could fail to meet several
criteria across standards and still pass the evaluation.
Limited time and funding, for example, will result in
many plans falling short in some areas. Nevertheless, fail-
ure to meet most of the criteria for one or more general
standards would suggest that substantial revision is re-
quired to improve the plan. For instance, failure to per-
form dynamic modeling of population viability for focal
species would not doom a plan, but failure to state ex-
plicit goals, use the best available information to map
suitable habitat for focal species, conduct a representa-
tion assessment, and make the plan available for peer re-
view would be unacceptable.
The checklist was not designed to establish a rigid set
of standards to which all plans must adhere. Indeed, the
science of conservation planning is evolving rapidly and
should not be hemmed in by inflexible rules and proce-
dures. The Wildlands Project encourages creativity and
innovation so that the methodology will continue to im-
prove. Moreover, regions that differ in their physical en-
vironment, biogeography, ecology, and land-use history
also will differ in the kinds of analyses and plans appro-
priate for themfor example, in the relative weight
given to protecting existing wildness versus rewilding
or to each of the three tracks of special elements, repre-
sentation, and focal species. Nevertheless, every plan

Checklist for Reserve Design Noss

Conservation Biology
Volume 17, No. 5, October 2003

must be scientifically defensible and must make the best
use of available data, staff, and resources. Some consis-
tency across plans is also necessary for their effective
integration into a continental-scale design for North
(1) Scientists and other experts are intimately in-
volved throughout the planning process, from the
initial formulation of goals and hypotheses to the
completion of the design and, in some cases, its
( a) One or more scientists who hold advanced de-
grees in conservation biology, ecology, or re-
lated fieldsor possess equivalent levels of
professional experienceare primarily respon-
sible for the development of the methodology
and identification of the corresponding targets
(elements), goals, and hypotheses.
( b) Experienced personnel with expertise in geo-
graphic information systems, site-selection algo-
rithms, habitat suitability, population viability
analysis, and other modeling approaches and
software conduct the analyses and produce the
( c) A qualified scientist from an appropriate disci-
pline assumes primary responsibility for inter-
preting the data, constructing alternative and fi-
nal WNDs, and writing associated reports and
( d) A Ph.D.level conservation biologist, or some-
one with equivalent professional experience,
supervises the planning process and has veto
power over the plan.
(2) The methodology is rigorous and systematic, within
the constraints imposed by broad-scale conserva-
tion planning, and seeks to address the stated goals
and questions.
( a ) Goals, objectives, hypotheses, and research
questions are all made explicit from the start.
Nothing is hidden. In addition, goals are defensi-
ble and correspond to the organizations mis-
(b) Goals reflect an emphasis on retaining existing
wildness or rewilding, in addition to assuring
reasonably comprehensive conservation of
( c) Conservation goals are explicit and stated in
quantitative terms, such as percentages, area,
and predicted population size.
(d) Multiple goal scenariosdifferent combinations
of quantitative goalsare developed and their
effects on site selection thoroughly explored.
( e) Whenever appropriate, research questions are
posed as testable hypotheses and hypotheses
are tested rigorously with appropriate statistical
techniques. Results of hypothesis tests are pre-
sented as answers (however provisional ) to im-
portant conservation questions.
( f ) Choices about the features to be used as surro-
gates for overall biodiversity ( i.e., targets ) are
made carefully and are well substantiated (Mar-
gules & Pressey 2000).
(g) Planning unitspreferably a hexagonal grid or,
alternately, watersheds or other natural units
are of appropriate size to capture relatively homo-
geneous segments of a heterogeneous landscape
and are of identical size or fall within a narrow
range of sizes (in order to avoid area effects).
(3) Methodology includes the three tracks of special
elements, representation, and focal-species analy-
sis. In addition, existing or potential threats to
biodiversity are addressed.
(a) Special elements selected as targets include im-
periled, rare, unique, or otherwise high-value el-
ements for which reasonably reliable data are
available in the study region. Examples include
globally critically imperiled (G1), imperiled (G2),
and vulnerable (G3) species and plant commu-
nities recognized by The Nature Conservancy
and NatureServe ( Noss & Cooperrider 1994;
Stein & Davis 2000); endangered taxa listed by
other organizations such as governments or the
World Conservation Union ( IUCN); such criti-
cal wildlife sites as bird rookeries, wintering
concentration areas, and migratory staging ar-
eas; old-growth forests and other endangered
ecosystems; wetlands and watersheds impor-
tant for aquatic biodiversity; key sites for the op-
eration of ecological processes ( e.g., distur-
bance initiation and export zones, flood and
wind corridors ); roadless areas; and sites con-
sidered sacred by indigenous peoples.
(b) Representation targets include both biotic (e.g.,
vegetation ) and abiotic ( e.g., geoclimatic )
classes. If possible, vegetation types are strati-
fied by the abiotic classes over which they are
distributed so as to capture samples of complete
environmental gradients. Explicit representa-
tion goals are set for each vegetation or biotic/
abiotic type, with higher goals assigned to types
known to have declined more in area or quality
since human settlement ( Noss et al. 1995). If
available, an aquatic habitat classification is
applied, with goals set for representing each
aquatic class at targeted levels (Noss et al. 2002).
( c) Focal species include ecologically pivotal spe-
cies (e.g., keystone species; Power et al. 1996),
area-limited species, dispersal-limited species,
resource-limited species, and process-limited
Conservation Biology
Volume 17, No. 5, October 2003

Noss Checklist for Reserve Design


species ( Lambeck 1997; see also Miller et al.
1998/99). The number of focal species selected
varies according to regional differences in ecol-
ogy and data availability. The set should be rea-
sonably comprehensive, but not so large as to
encourage superficial treatment. A set of 310
focal species is probably optimal in most re-
gions. Wildlands Project staff members assist in
the selection of focal species.
(d) Focal-species modeling includes spatially explicit
resource-selection functions ( RSFs ) ( Boyce &
McDonald 1999) that apply multiple logistic re-
gression or other appropriate statistical tech-
niques to link distributional data for each spe-
cies to regional-scale predictor variables ( e.g.,
Mladenoff et al. 1995; Carroll et al. 2001). If dis-
tributional data are too limited to produce an
RSF for a species, spatially explicit expert or
conceptual habitat-suitability models are applied.
( e) Focal-species modeling includes dynamic, spa-
tially explicit, individual-based models ( e.g.,
PATCH; Schumaker 1998) that provide predic-
tions of population persistence over time, iden-
tify potential source and sink areas, allow the
demographic value of individual sites to be as-
sessed within a broad geographic context, and
predict the demographic and distributional con-
sequences of landscape change. Landscape-
change scenarios are based on extrapolation of
recent trends but include scenarios of both in-
creased development and increased conserva-
tion (Noss et al. 2002; Carroll et al. 2003).
(f) Indicators of threats to biodiversity are identified
and mapped, to the extent that available data-
bases allow. Potential threat surrogates include
socioeconomic data ( e.g., human population
density, housing density, grazing leases, timber
concessions, road density, mines, pipelines,
seismic lines, and specific developments ) and
projections into the future; information on ex-
otic species, pollution, alteration of natural dis-
turbance regimes, and other specific stressors;
and i ndi ces of l andscape pat t ern ( e. g. ,
fragmentation). These indicators may be com-
bined into an overall estimate or index of vul-
nerability, which when graphed against biologi-
cal irreplaceability can assist in the prioritization
of sites for protection (Margules & Pressey 2000).
(4) Methodology is well documented and replicable;
studies could be repeated by others.
(a) A complete list of targets (surrogates, elements)
considered in goal scenarios and applied in site
selection is provided.
( b) An appropriate site-selection algorithm ( e.g.,
SITES [Andelman et al. 1999], Marxan [Ball &
Possingham undated] or a comparable simu-
lated-annealing algorithm [see Possingham et al.
2000]) is employed to identify a set of sites that
efficiently meets stated goals. The algorithm
should be capable of providing several alterna-
tive solutions, rather than just a single best so-
(c) The cost equation of the site-selection algorithm
is explicit, easy to interpret, and relatively ro-
bust, and it avoids confounding variables. A sen-
sitivity analysis is performed for components of
the cost equation to evaluate the effects of varia-
tion in each parameter on total network cost.
(d) Assumptions underlying selection of targets, de-
velopment and selection of goal scenarios,
other aspects of methodology, and interpreta-
tion of results are stated clearly and are justified.
( e ) Limitations of the methodology and data are
clearly acknowledged, with additional research
needs identified.
( f ) Subjective decisions involved in selecting goal
scenarios, interpreting results, and applying
principles of reserve design to construct net-
works are well documented and explained.
( g ) The methodology, however technical, is de-
scribed clearly enough to be understood by an
intelligent but nonspecialist conservation
(h) All data are retained and can be made available
to others who wish to replicate the study or
conduct further analyses. (Exceptions occur in
cases of high data sensitivity, such as precise lo-
cations of endangered species vulnerable to col-
lection or persecution. )
(5) Interpretation and application of results are
congruent with principles (i.e., empirical generali-
zations) of conservation biology, demonstrate a
good command of relevant literature and theory,
and apply the precautionary principle.
(a) The analysis explicitly recognizes the extent to
which goals have been met in existing reserves
(i.e., includes a gap analysis) and compares that
situation to the goals achieved by each alterna-
tive network and/or each priority class of sites or
each class or reserve within the final network.
(b) The design of the network is consistent with the
principles and empirical generalizations of con-
servation biology ( e.g., Meffe & Carroll 1997;
Noss et al. 1997) and is justified rigorously in re-
lation to selected targets and goals, such as
maintaining viable populations of focal species.
(c) The sites in the final network (the WND) are an-
alyzed, ranked, and plotted in terms of their irre-
placeability for achieving conservation goals
and their vulnerability to destruction or degra-

Checklist for Reserve Design Noss

Conservation Biology
Volume 17, No. 5, October 2003

dation in the near future ( Margules & Pressey
2000; Pressey & Taffs 2001). The internal con-
tent and landscape context of sites are both
considered in rankings.
(d) The WND includes intact core areas (possibly in
two or more classes), landscape linkages ( i.e.,
wide corridors or connectivity zones), and, op-
tionally, buffer or compatible-use zones.
(e) In cases of uncertainty, the WND risks erring on
the side of being too large and too connected.
(f) Site descriptions are prepared for sites in the final
network, and include a general description of the
site; statements of acreage and scores on various
conservation criteria; a targets list, including im-
periled species, communities, and other features;
general information on land ownership; and dis-
cussion of threats and management issues.
( g) Appropriate scientific literature ( classic and
current) is cited throughout the document that
represents the WND.
(6) Project is thoroughly peer reviewed. In addition,
the wildlands network design is available to the
public for review. Review comments are thought-
fully considered and addressed.
(a) The plan is thoroughly peer-reviewed by scien-
tists and other experts who are independent
( not financially or emotionally connected to the
project ) and competent in the relevant subject
areas. At least three substantive peer reviews
are received, in addition to any reviews from in-
terested members of the public.
( b ) If possible, scientific peer reviewers of the
WND document are offered compensation for
their reviews (this does not apply to reviewers
of articles submitted for publication in the refer-
eed literature; see Standard 7). Financial com-
pensation for reviews of major reports helps as-
sure thorough and timely review ( Noss et al.
1997): if reviewers do not provide substantive
comments within the scheduled time period,
they do not get paid. Negative reviews are com-
pensated equally to positive reviews.
(c) The WND document or article is revised accord-
ing to suggestions from the reviewers. Peer-
review comments are thoughtfully considered
and responded to in detail and in writing. When
a reviewers suggestion is not followed, a defen-
sible reason is given for not following it.
( d) The data, models, and analyses are made avail-
able to anyone who requests them (for a charge,
if substantial staff time or other resources are
(7) At least some of the results are publishable in repu-
table, peer-reviewed journals, as well as other outlets.
(a) Articles on the methodology, results, implemen-
tation, or other aspects of the WND are written
and submitted to refereed journals. Publication
in reputable journals helps assure the scientific
defensibility of the plan and allows information
to be shared with the broader scientific and
conservation community.
( b) Articles are accepted and published in reputa-
ble, peer-reviewed journals.
(c) Articles in journals and magazines aimed at a more
general conservation audience (e.g.,

Wild Earth





) are submitted and published.
(8) The entire process, from developing research meth-
ods through implementation, is iterative and adap-
tive. There is no final plan; rather, the wildlands
network design is continually refined and improved
with feedback from research, monitoring, peer re-
view, and practice.
(a) Conservation planning is iterative and adaptive.
Hence, the WND is presented as a working doc-
ument for guiding conservation actions, not as
the final word on how to conserve biodiversity
in the region concerned.
( b ) Revisions of the WND are anticipated, ade-
quately prepared for, budgeted for, and carried
out as required to fulfill conservation goals.
( c) Additional research and monitoring are imple-
mented in pursuit of iterative improvement of


This work was supported by the Wildlands Project. I
thank B. Dugelby, K. Daly, D. Foreman, B. Howard, L.
Klyza-Linck, R. Long, C. Reining, M. Soul, and S. Trom-
bulak for comments on earlier drafts of the checklist. E.
Dinerstein and three anonymous reviewers provided
constructive comments on the submitted manuscript.

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