Aerial view of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve in Chile showing ocean waves, a sandy beach, and inland vegetation.
Chile An aerial view of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve, Los Rios, Chile. © Nick Hall

Our Science

2020 Geospatial Conservation Annual Report

How we're using conservation mapping to achieve the best return on investments around the world.

Get the full 2020 Geospatial Annual Report

These maps and use cases illustrate the reach and range of our conservation impact.

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“Spatial action mapping” is a generalized term for the field of systematic conservation planning that includes assessing the cost and feasibility of specific actions. Simply put, it helps us map different conservation actions to priority places for delivering the greatest benefit to people and nature.

By prioritizing places and explicitly assigning conservation actions, we can identify what actions to take, when and where to take them, and for how long. 

Spatial action mapping influences a wide range of conservation actions, including policy reform, education, lobbying, gear restrictions for fishing and much more.

We need maps to tell us the places where specific actions will deliver the greatest return on investment.

Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy (2016-2020)

In this field, we generate maps that highlight biodiversity assets and the various threats to those assets. While these maps are an essential component of spatial action mapping, they should not be the only element that directs conservation actions or guides strategies. We need maps to tell us the places where specific actions will deliver the greatest return on investment.

As conservationists, we need to go beyond simply finding areas to conserve. We need to focus on actions that ensure ecological representation, connectivity and the long-term viability of ecosystems. We must do this while taking into account not only the cost and feasibility of conservation action but what is likely to happen as the climate changes.

For example, if we encounter a place in East Africa with the greatest diversity of mammals or a patch of mangroves in Indonesia with the greatest ability to fix carbon or protect people against coastal hazards, should we protect it? Maybe, but first we must consider all the pieces that contribute to this answer: actions at these locations might be politically infeasible, ridiculously expensive, culturally insensitive, or prone to failure for technical, social or economic reasons.

This is what our geospatial community at TNC does to advance conservation science, planning and action. Our second Annual Report & Map Book provides a small glimpse into how.

Map depicting kelp cover along the California coast. 90% of bull kelp was lost between 2008 and 2016.
California Kelp This map illustrates the loss of over 90% of kelp along the Northern California coast between 2008 and 2016. See this and other examples of our cartography work in our Annual Report. © Megan Webb & Charlotte Stanley/TNC

The broad range with which geospatial work supports meaningful conservation

Geospatial technology—the combined disciplines of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing and machine learning—is an important tool for TNC’s science-based approach to conservation known as Conservation by Design. A pillar of this approach involves mapping strategies and actions in priority places and then evaluating the impact of those strategies in comparison to broad conservation goals. 

Download the Annual Report for a closer look at 25 case studies, a global map series of crisis and last chance ecosystems, and over a dozen feature maps depicting specific conservation projects. These maps and stories demonstrate the range with which this technology is being used for conservation. However, even this is a small glimpse of the breadth and depth of our geospatial work that supports meaningful conservation action.

Explore the following case study from Mexico that highlights the types of conservation mapping applications you'll find in the Annual Report:

Zacatecas Water Fund Conservation Targets Met

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    Endemic vegetation species targeted for conservation

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    Wildlife species targeted for conservation (47 endemic)

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    Hectares found that meet our conservation criteria

Cartography of conservation areas identified for the Zacatecas Water Fund in Mexico.
Zacatecas Water Fund We identified 1.4 million hectares in Zacatecas that meet our conservation target criteria, helping to guide the Water Fund’s conservation efforts. © Anna Ormiston & Mexico Water Security Program/TNC

Case Study: Designing Conservation Priority Recommendations in Zacatecas, Mexico

The problem:

The Mexican State of Zacatecas provides water to neighboring communities despite receiving only 455 mm (18 inches) of rain per year. The Zacatecas Water Fund was established by TNC and Grupo Modelo in 2019 to help ensure sustainable water management in this semi-arid region.

As part of an effort to recharge aquifers throughout the region, the Zacatecas Water Fund needed to know where to prioritize restoration and reforestation.

The solution:

Conservation science and geospatial technology staff collaborated across TNC to select priority areas for conservation and restoration as part of the Water Fund. We compiled and processed ecological, physical and socioeconomic spatial data, and generated 500 species distribution models and a human impact model for the areas being considered. We then ran these models through Marxan, a spatial prioritization decision support tool.

This analysis allowed our team to select the priority areas that met our biodiversity and water targets or conservation goals in areas that were minimally impacted by humans. 

The result:

We achieved our conservation targets for protecting 500 species, including 120 endemic vegetation types and 380 wildlife species (47 endemic). We avoided highly impacted areas: mining concessions, agriculture, irrigation districts, dense populations and transportation infrastructure. We identified 1,420,075 hectares that meet our conservation target criteria, helping to guide the Water Fund’s conservation efforts. 

TNC’s Water Fund project partner will use this plan to prioritize locations for restoration and reforestation in order to recharge the region's aquifers.

More case studies from around the world

We've selected 25 case studies that demonstrate our global geospatial conservation work.

Download Your Copy

Technology & Partners:

  • Data Sources: TNC MNCA, National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), Esri, CGIAR, USGS 
  • Software: Marxan, ArcGIS Pro, R (SSDM R package), and QGIS 
  • Partner: Maxiterra Consultancy

Addressing diversity in our geospatial work

It’s important to us that TNC staff represent the diversity of our global influence. To see how our geospatial staff contribute to this goal, we evaluated our professional workforce in our annual survey. While we did find a diverse array of global practitioners using science for conservation, we discovered this workforce is predominantly white, with the highest staff concentration in the United States.

A group of TNC staff and partners pose among a forest in Colombia during a workshop.
Agroforestry Conservation TNC staff and partners during a monitoring workshop on carbon, biodiversity and land cover with Indigenous communities. © Agroforestry for Conservation project, Colombia

Of the 1,577 staff invited to fill out the survey, only 18% of our global geospatial workforce identified as non-white and 68% identified as white (14% did not respond). Of these, 44% identified as men, 33% women, and 23% did not indicate. These results highlight a significant challenge: identifying, addressing and removing professional obstacles that may be preventing the advancement of racially or ethnically diverse employees in our workforce.

It is imperative that we act with intention, as leaders in conservation and in the creation of a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce.

As we strive to do better, we are taking the following steps to immediately address diversity:

  1. Create a diverse council: Our Geospatial Leadership Council is intentionally representative of our global workforce and gender-equal. We believe that having regionally diverse representation will greatly increase our conservation impact. The Council is 22 staff (11 men, 11 women) from North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific - every region where TNC works. Only by having many voices and perspectives will we reach our conservation goals.
  2. Distribute geospatial software: Esri has authorized TNC to distribute their GIS software licenses to global conservation partners. These nonprofit partners receive similar licensing benefits as TNC does, including unlimited access to Esri eLearning resources, technical support, and assistance with software license distribution and management. We currently support 44 nonprofit conservation organizations from 49 countries. We are committed to providing these technical resources to the people supporting critical conservation decisions.
  3. Partner with SCGIS: We have partnered with the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) to serve this diverse international community. We will do this by actively shaping SCGIS governance and programmatic activities, including providing scholarships and training for underrepresented communities and offering resources to support a new generation of geospatial professionals.

The Nature Conservancy’s geospatial work is intricately linked to our broader community and has the power to address the joint challenge of social inequity and climate change. We know that the key to advancing conservation and protecting the planet lies in our ability to cultivate a work environment that promotes diversity, inclusion and equality for the people behind our geospatial technology.

Get your 2020 Geospatial Annual Report & Map Book

Access 25 conservation case studies and a global map series showing how geospatial technology supports and advances our conservation work.


Media Contact

Zach Ferdaña
Geospatial Information Officer
The Nature Conservancy
Phone: 206-409-0041