As a conservation biologist, I seek mechanisms for slowing or preventing the loss of biodiversity, which is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Estimates of the magnitude of species extinction vary greatly, but one thing is clear – current rates of extinction far exceed those of past major extinction spasms. Largely, this is due to human influence: through resource consumption and land use, humans now dominate all global environmental systems.
Human-caused extinctions not only terminate the existence of countless organisms that evolved over hundreds of millions of years, but in so doing threaten the life support systems on which we depend. Herein lie two fundamentally different, but complementary imperatives for protecting biodiversity: the intrinsic value of the multiplicity of life forms and the evolutionary processes that produced them, and the utilitarian value that the diversity of life provides for our own well-being.
These two value systems lead to quite different, yet complementary, conservation strategies. In the “protected area” strategy, the goal is to conserve as many species as efficiently as possible within a network of reserves. While such protected areas may also provide services to humanity, the main impetus for their creation is the intrinsic value of the biodiversity they contain. In the “ecosystem service” strategy, the goal is to identify and conserve the species that provide important benefits to humans, in the places where these services are most needed. In my research, I work on both of these strategies, because I find that their underlying value-systems are equally compelling, and that together they work in a complementary fashion, often in different parts of landscapes, to reconcile human resource use with biodiversity conservation. A central goal in my approach is to provide information, techniques or tools of use to real-world situations. Each research project, therefore, is designed around a specific applied problem, and then draws broader, generalizable principles from these specific applications.