Conservation Planning Tools Assessment

Project Overview

The 2011 Conservation Planning Tools Assessment was created to assess and better understand planners' use of and needs for conservation planning tools. The assessment was created through a partnership between APA and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Conservation Planning Tools Assessment Report

Introduction and General Characteristics of Respondents

"Planning is indispensable to the difficult process of deciding what land to target for permanent preservation." —Rick Pruetz, FAICP, in Lasting Value

Every year, more than a million acres of rural lands, including forests, farmland, and other open spaces, are converted to development. Based in biological science, "conservation planning" is a growing field that works to identify those areas of land and water that hold the greatest promise for long-term biodiversity protection. Conservation planning is most effective when conducted at multiple scales. Many new advanced tools in conservation planning are offering new insights and modes of inquiry, particularly those that utilize Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to visualize, question, and interpret data. The USDA Forest Service and conservation biology field were interested in planners' interaction with these new tools in their work, since planning is critical to protecting open spaces and negotiating human habitats with sensitive environmental areas. The 2011 Conservation Planning Tools Assessment was designed to assess familiarity with conservation planning goals and objectives, specific conservation planning tools, as well as constraints on planners for implementing conservation planning approaches.

The assessment was administered to APA members. Members were asked to forward the assessment on to the individual in their organization most involved in conservation-related work.

General Characteristics of Respondents

  • 1,872 total respondents
  • 82% work as professional planners (65% public sector; 17% private sector)
  • 58% are members of APA's professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP); 1% are Fellows of AICP (FAICP)
  • Other professions include: Academics (5%), Non-profit (4%), Planning Commissioner/Planning Board Member (2%), Engaged Citizen/Advocate (1%), Land-use Attorney (-1%), Other (5%), No Answer (1%)
  • All U.S. states represented, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands
  • 51% work primarily at the municipality level; 26% county; 10% regional or metropolitan area (see Figure 1 below)
  • 56% of all professional planner respondents work in jurisdictions with a population less than 100,000; 19% work in those with more than 500,000 (see Figure 2 below)

Figure 1: Jurisdiction types that respondents reported doing conservation work for.

Figure 2: Population of respondents' primary jurisdiction for which they've worked on conservation planning (%)

  • When asked what kinds of conservation planning they were involved with in the previous 12 months, respondents answered with a wide variety of planning issues. The majority included "open space, cultural landscape, and viewshed protection" as part of their work (75%), followed by "stream and river, riparian protection" (50%), "watershed protection" (49%), and "habitat, biodiversity, and endangered species protection" (44%). Others are shown in Figure 2.1 below.

Figure 2.1: In the last 12 months, what types of conservation planning have you been involved with (please select all that apply) (%)?

  • Almost half (49%) of respondents reported to have received assistance from some kind of local land management agency or conservation organization in the previous 12 months (see Figure 3 below). Of those who received assistance, the majority received it from a local land trust or state land management agency (46%). Assistance came from a number of sources as shown in Figure 3.1 below.

Figure 3: Proportion Who Have Received Assistance from Local Land Management or Conservation Organizations in the Last 12 Months

Received Assistance? Percent/Number
Yes 49% (910)
No 48% (896)
No Answer 4% 66)

Figure 3.1: Of Those Who Received Assistance in the Last 12 Months, the Local Land Management and Conservation Organizations Who Provided That Assistance

Organization Percent/Number
Local Land Trust 51% (464)
National Conservation Organization 24% (215)
State Land Management Agency 46% (422)
Local Land Management Agency 30% (273)
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services 26% (239)
U.S.D.A. Forest Service 17% (155)
U.S. National Park Service 14% (124)
U.S. Bureau of Land Management 9% (86)
Other State Agency/Organization/Department 5% (46)
Other 18% (162)
Indicated at Least One 99% (905)
No Answer 1% (5)

Tools: Awareness, Use, and Proficiency

  • 74% of all respondents reported that their organization uses GIS tools either frequently (34%) or always (40%) (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4: How often does your organization utilize Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools for conservation planning (%)?

  • Community VIZ was the most cited (42%) tool among those who were aware. UrbanSim was the second most cited at 23%. The rest of the tools were significantly less well known, mostly unknown. 51% of all respondents reported awareness of at least one tool. 49% gave no answer (see Figure 5 below).

Figure 5: Which of the following open space conservation planning tools are you aware of (%)?

  • 51% (960) of respondents reported awareness of at least one of the conservation planning tools listed.
  • Of the 51% (960) aware of at least one tool, less than half claimed to actually use them in their work (see Figure 6 below). Furthermore, those who used the tools reported that they provided minimal usefulness to their organization/primary jurisdiction (see Figure 7 below).

Figure 6: Respondents who were "aware of tool, but do not use"

Tool Aware, But Don't Use (Percent/Number) No Answer (Percent/Number)
UrbanSim 60% (259) 12% (53)
Miradi 59% (22) 22% (8)
Climate Wizard 56% (60) 14% (15)
Community VIZ 53% (415) 9% (74)
FunConn 53% (18) 24% (8)
Maxent or Other SDM 53% (17) 22% (7)
Circuitscape 52% (38) 19% (14)
Corridor Designer 50% (62) 10% (13)
Natureserve Vista 49% (60) 11% (14)
MARXAN or Zonation 47% (23) 20% (10)
RAMAS GIS 46% (45) 10% (10)

Figure 7: Usefulness: Those who ranked each tool a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale, whereby 5=very useful and 1=not at all useful

Tool Ranked 4 or 5 (Percent/Number)
Natureserve Vista 23% (28)
RAMAS GIS 22% (22)
Corridor Designer 19% (23)
MARXAN/Zonation 18% (9)
FunConn 18% (6)
Community VIZ 16% (125)
Miradi 11% (4)
Climate Wizard 10% (11)
Circuitscape 10% (7)
Maxent/other SDM 9% (3)
UrbanSim 9% (39)
  • The number of people who reported any level of proficiency in the tools was very low (see Figure 8 below)

Figure 8: Proficiency: Those who ranked their skill level for each tool, whereby 5=very proficient and 1=not at all proficient

Tool Ranked 4 or 5 (Percent/Number)
Miradi 57% (4)
FunConn 50% (4)
Maxent or other SDM 38% (3)
Natureserve Vista 22% (11)
MARXAN/Zonation 19% (3)
Corridor Designer 18% (9)
Circuitscape 14% (3)
RAMAS GIS 14% (6)
Community VIZ 12% (35)
Climate Wizard 6% (2)
UrbanSim 6% (7)
  • As a multi-part question, the drop-off rate from respondents' awareness to their actual use and, finally, to their proficiency in each tool is extremely high. In other words, very few reported using these tools in their work, and for the ones that have used them; their proficiency is very low. Figure 9 below illustrates the steep drop-off rate. The blue lines represent the total number of respondents from the assessment. The red lines show how many respondents were aware of each tool. The green lines show those who actually use the tool in their work. And the purple, which is barely visible, represents the number of proficient users for each tool.

Figure 9: Awareness, Use, & Proficiency of Conservation Planning Tools

Blue: Total Number of Respondents
Red: Total Number Aware of Tool
Green: Total Number of Tool Users
Purple: Total Number of Proficient Users

Barriers to Use

Organizational Support

  • The assessment asked what level of agreement each respondent had with the following statements regarding support for using conservation planning tools within their organization (see Figure 10 below).

Figure 10: Level of Agreement with Each Statement About Organizational Support, whereby +2=strongly agree and -2=strongly disagree

Statement Agreed: Ranked +1 or +2 (Percent/Number) Mean Summary
There is strong support for conservation planning tools in our organization. 49% (924) +0.5
Our organization is very aware of the capabilities of conservation tools for planning-related work. 48% (896) +0.4
Our organization has sufficient technical support for conservation planning tools. 44% (827) +0.2
Our organization pays for all of the training we need in conservation planning tools. 27% (497) -0.3
Our organization has funds allocated to invest sufficiently in conservation planning tools. 18% (341) -0.6

Factors Preventing the Use of Conservation Tools

  • Respondents were also asked what factors have prevented them from using conservation planning tools in their work (see Figure 11 below).

Figure 11: Factors Preventing the Use of Conservation Planning Tools

Preventing Factor Total (Percent/Number)
Cost of tool/software 55% (1028)
Time needed to learn tool 50% (944)
Cost of training 47% (883)
Not enough data/wrong kind of data 19% (361)
Hardware issues/not enough computer capacity 14% (255)
Not aware of tools/availability/uses/value 7% (136)
Tools not applicable/necessary/worthwhile/useful 5% (98)
Leadership/management/community-client not interested or supportive 4% (76)
Not applicable to position/used by others 3% (55)
Low priority/not the main focus of work/organization 2% (42)
Current tools are sufficient 2% (35)
Indicated at least one 89% (1663)

Level of Interest in Training

  • 19% of all respondents indicated a "very high" interest in training with specific conservation planning tools. 32% had a "somewhat high" interest; 31% "moderate" interest; 11% "somewhat low" interest; and 6% "very low" interest. Only 3% had no answer. Map 1 below provides a regional look, specifically at the percentages of respondents in each with a "very high" and "somewhat high" interest in training.

Map 1: Level of Interest in Web-Based Training or Workshops Focused on the Use of Specific Conservation Planning Tools and Issues Related to Tools, grouped by 9 regions. The color scale and corresponding number represents the percentage of respondents in each region whose interest level was very high or somewhat high.

  • Planners face a number of challenges in using data for conservation planning. Of those, "finding money to pay for software and training" topped the list with 64% of all respondents. A "lack of trained staff" was reported by 47%. The issue of "not knowing what data and information are available to my jurisdiction/client" was claimed by 42%. 32% saw a "lack of local support" as one of their biggest challenges. Other answers are included in Figure 12 below.

Figure 12: Challenges in Using Data for Conservation Planning

Challenge Percent/Number
Finding money to pay for software and training 64% (1205)
Lack of trained staff 47% (876)
Not knowing what data and information are available to my jurisdiction/client 42% (780)
Lack of local support 32% (605)
Technical difficulty of using unfamiliar data 31% (578)
Suitability of scale 29% (540)
Obstacles to data sharing 25% (460)
Unfamiliarity with particular ecosystems or habitats 11% (201)
Lack of time 2% (33)
Other 7% (132)
Indicated at least one 90% (1689)
None 5% (85)
No answer 5% (98)

Communicating Information with Decision Makers

Planners often grapple with finding the best methods of communicating their analysis to decision makers. The assessment asked respondents a few questions regarding their interaction with decision makers regarding their conservation planning efforts.

Figure 13: Ease/Difficulty of Communicating Conservation Planning Information to Decision Makers

Level of Ease/Difficulty Percent/Number
Very Easy 9% (171)
Somewhat Easy 31% (571)
Neutral 26% (489)
Somewhat Difficult 19% (357)
Very Difficult 8% (146)
No Opinion 4% (72)
No Answer 4% (66)

Map 2: Ease/Difficulty of Communicating Conservation Planning Information to Decision Makers, grouped by 9 regions. The color scale and corresponding numbers represents the percentage of respondents in each region who found it "very easy" and "somewhat easy."

  • Planners use a variety of resources and media types to make conservation planning decisions, as shown below in Figures 14 & 15.

Figure 14: Resources Used to Make Conservation Planning Decisions

Resource Percent/Number
Planning Tools 62% (1159)
Local Politics 50% (1106)
Outside Experts 56% (1051)
Public Opinion 54% (1009)
Education/Advocacy Campaigns 35% (660)
Other 7% (132)
Indicated at Least One 91% (1708)
No Conservation Planning Decisions Have Been Made 4% (67)
No Answer 5% (97)

Figure 15: Usefulness of Media Types in Communicating Conservation Planning Information With Decision Makers

Media Type Percent/Number
Maps (printed) 79% (1482)
Mapping Tools (electronic) 78% (1466)
Visualization Tools 70% (1319)
Slide Shows (e.g., PowerPoint) 63% (1172)
Memos and Reports 56% (1039)
E-mail 51% (958)
Websites 49% (912)
Time-Series Data in Graphic Format 36% (667)
Videos 34% (645)
Social Media (e.g., Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) 14% (258)
Indicated at Least One 91% (1702)
Indicated None 9% (170)

Conference Session

"Planners and Conservation Biologists"

APA National Planning Conference • April 17, 2012

During the 2012 National Planning Conference in Los Angeles, an education session was held to share the results of the survey and hear from planners and conservation biologists about their work in open space conservation and habitat protection. That session is posted in sections below.


Susan Stein, USDA Forest Service

Guidelines and Incentives for Conservation Design in Local Development Regulations

Sarah Reed, Department of Fish, Wildlife & Conservation Biology, Colorado State University

Analysis of Assessment Results

Ryan Scherzinger, APA

Analysis of Tools

Don Lipscomb, Clemson University

Planner's Perspective

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, Author of Lasting Value: Open Space Planning & Preservation Successes


The Conservation Planning Tools Assessment was created to determine planners' use of some of the conservation and open space planning tools currently available in the field. Based on the results, there is no doubt that planners are utilizing GIS tools, as well as many of the other tools long used by planning professionals to gather information and actively engage the public. Conservation efforts require an array of tools and methods, collaborative strategies, and the ability to seek and remain open to new and creative solutions. Planning is absolutely critical to the conservation goals of communities.

Professional planners comprise the majority (82%) of the assessment's 1,872-person sample. Most (65%) work in the public sector versus 17% in the private sector. Others working in the conservation planning field that responded to the assessment include: academics, non-profit professionals, land use attorneys, elected officials, and engaged citizens. Conservation planning is occurring in jurisdictions of all scales and sizes, but primarily at the municipality level (56%) followed by the county level (26%); and with populations of less than 100,000 (56%). 19% work with jurisdictions with a population above 500,000.

Almost half (49%) reported receiving assistance from some kind of local land management agency or conservation organization. Most of that assistance came from local land trusts (51%), state (46%) and local (32%) land management agencies. National conservation organizations accounted for 24% of assistance, including The Nature Conservancy (6%) and Trust for Public Land (3%) among others. Several federal agencies provided assistance, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (26%), U.S.D.A. Forest Service (17%), U.S. National Park Service (14%), and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (9%).

Planners are certainly no strangers to GIS tools. 74% reported using them either frequently (34%) or always (40%) in their work. Almost half (49%) reported that there is strong support for conservation planning tools in their organization and about half (48%) claimed that their organization is very aware of the capabilities of conservation planning tools for planning-related work. Technical support, training, and funding for tools, however, is lacking.

Of the tools provided within the assessment, planners clearly gravitated toward the build-out/open space planning tools, such as CommunityViz and UrbanSim, as opposed to the biodiversity-based planning tools on the list. Despite their awareness of those specific tools, very few found them useful to their work. From the results, there was clearly little awareness of any of the tools, even less actual use of the tools in their work, and barely a trace of any real proficiency in the tools. Increasing barriers to entry for understanding fast-evolving conservation planning tools may provide some explanation to why many planners show a lack of proficiency in the tools. As the field of conservation planning rapidly grows and the specialization of these tools intensifies, planners have to learn a vast and complicated literature in order to accurately apply these new tools to their work. Another common preventative factor is clearly the cost of the tools, not to mention the time and training needed to learn them. Raising awareness about the growing capabilities of these tools, however, may prompt more planners to seek new ways of partnering with experts in the conservation planning field who utilize many of these tools on a regular basis. The results of such collaborations could lead to more informed land use decisions.

Many planners did express an interest in training opportunities for conservation planning tools. When asked what their level of interest was in workshops and web-based training for conservation planning tools the majority (63%) indicated "moderate-high" levels of interest, and 19% indicated a "very high" level of interest.

Communicating conservation planning information with decision makers poses some challenges to planners, but nothing that suggested any overwhelming difficulties. Only 9% found it very easy; 31% somewhat easy. 26% took a neutral position and only 27% reported it either somewhat or very difficult. Planners use a variety of resources and media types to convey information to decision makers.


Planning for Land Use and Conservation: Assessing GIS-based Conservation Software for Land Use Planning


Applying Conservation Planning Tools

Case Study: Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Plan

The case study illustrates how a collection of software tools formed a decision support toolkit in conjunction with the development of PPACG's long range transportation planning effort called the 2035 Moving Forward Update. The study also describes the steps taken to create an advance mitigation plan to aid implementation of the 2035 plan. The advance mitigation plan identifies locations that can provide offsite mitigation to impacts that could not be avoided in the 25-year plan.

APA acknowledges the USDA Forest Service for providing the funding for this assessment. In particular, APA wishes to thank our primary Forest Service contact for this project, Susan Stein. Clemson University also served on the project providing expertise in conservation planning tools and GIS applications. From Clemson, APA wishes to acknowledge Rob Baldwin, a conservation biologist, and Don Lipscomb, a GIS specialist. The survey was conducted by APA Senior Outreach Associate Ryan Scherzinger.