#NACCB2014 and beyond: a month PhDing in the USA

I recently returned back from a 4-week trip to the United States, where I attended the 2014 North American Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) in Missoula, Montana from 12-17 July. Given this was my first time visiting the US and one of my case-studies is on conservation banking, I made sure I extended my trip beyond the conference. I’m so glad that I did, as this was easily the most interesting and productive study trip I’ve taken.

Clark Fork River, Missoula

Just before the NACCB conference started, I spent the weekend in a 2-day workshop ‘Advances in conservation impact evaluation and causal inference’ run by Paul Ferraro from Georgia State University. Paul is a world leader in impact evaluation; and specialises in evaluating the impact of conservation policies such as protected areas and payments for ecosystem service (PES) programs (see Miteva et al. 2012 for a good overview of current evaluation research in biodiversity policy). Impact evaluation seeks to understand what (if any) environmental outcomes can be attributed to the policy intervention itself – rather than to other factors (Ferraro 2009).

For example, is the higher level of forest cover inside a protected area compared to outside the result of the protected area establishment itself, or is the land inside simply unsuitable for other land uses? It was fantastic to get an in-depth introduction to a range impact evaluation methodologies, including experimental and quasi-experimental approaches, matching, regression discontinuity and synthetic control. I’d highly recommend anyone to take Paul’s course where it’s offered again in the future (likely at another SCB conference).

Grizzly statue @ UMontana
I gave my presentation (see my previous post for the slides) as part of the “Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries: Strategies For Integrative Conservation Research” symposium, organised by Carina Wyborn and Laurie Yung from the University of Montana. I felt really privileged to be part of such an impressive (and all-female!) line-up – including Leah Samberg (University of Montana), Erika Zavaleta (University of California Santa Cruz) and Kate Sherren (Dalhousie University). Each speaker spoke of their experience in conducting interdisciplinary research in conservation, including challenges faced and approaches for overcoming these barriers. Check out Carina’s presentation on integrating qualitative social science into interdisciplinary research here.

One session during the conference that I found very interesting was the “Integrating Cutting-Edge Science Into Regulations and Mitigation Measures for Oil and Gas Development”. Obviously it was very relevant to my research, and I was interested to learn more about the mitigation and offset measures being undertaken for environmental impacts as a result of oil/gas developments in North America. While there is undoubtedly some good science being done to make detailed estimates of the ecological impacts as a result of these developments, I was a bit dismayed to find that little work was being done to evaluate how effective these measures are.

Duke University
Duke University

I asked the panel at the end of the session why there was such overwhelming focus on estimating impacts and little work on evaluating success, and the general response was that (experimental) evaluation is difficult (e.g due to detectability issues), and more money is needed to develop large-scale controlled experiments to evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation measures. Given there is already apparently hundreds of millions of dollars going into ecological research and mitigation measures for oil and gas developments, I found this response a little hard to swallow. Indeed, despite this investment, no one – scientists, regulators and developers alike (present at this symposium at least) – could tell me anything about the success or otherwise of mitigation measures for oil and gas. Apparently this isn’t considered to be a big issue.

After NACCB 2014, my travels took me to Portland, Oregon where I met with Sara Vickerman and others from the Defenders of Wildlife office, as well as Nicole Maness from the Willamette Partnership. I then traveled Davis, California where I met with David Bunn (who has done a lot of recent work on conservation banks in CA) and said hello to Mark Schwartz and Matt Williamson (after getting hopelessly lost looking for “The Barn” on UC Davis – Google it to understand what I mean!).

Capitol, Washington DC
Capitol, Washington DC

I then went and spent a couple of days at Duke University in North Carolina, which hosts an epicentre of interdisciplinary environmental research at the Nicholas School of the Environment.  I’m really grateful to Alex Pfaff, his students David Kaczan and Diego García, and several other researchers for making the time to chat with me.

Finally, I took the opportunity to head to Washington DC where I was able to meet up with Jeneen Garcia and learn about the evaluation work being done at the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank (check out Jeneen’s blog on the project here).

All in all, I had a fantastic time, met many great people, and learnt a LOT. Now to start writing!


This trip would not have been possible without the financial support of an ANU Vice-Chancellor HDR Travel Grant and my CSIRO top-up scholarship.

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