Effects of institutional and geographic boundaries on conservation land acquisition over the last 150 years in California
In an era when biodiversity is highly threatened by changes in climate and land use, it is unclear whether our past conservation efforts will remain effective, and we do not know whether they have been effective so far. Reconstructing conservation history aims to answer this question through the digital development of conservation actions, and subsequent analysis and interpretation. We applied this framework to California to reconstruct where and when Open Space land was acquired, what these areas were acquired to conserve, how the process of acquisition was conducted, and which governance levels and actors were involved that explain their acquisition.
Today, about ¼ of California is Open Space. Fewer and larger areas conserved and acquired at the beginning of the 20th century; and this conservation network was later complemented with a larger number of smaller sized properties. Despite acquisition of land in every decade, the process was uneven, mostly due to the large acquisitions and land set asides in the 1900s, followed by 1930s and 1940s. Forest ecosystems were the ones to be first protected, followed by coastal ranges and ocean-front landscapes, and deserts lands were mostly acquired in the 21st century. Several actors were involved in the process of land acquisition, but polycentric governance does not seem to have an effect on conservation land purchases both in number and area. Governance levels, however, showed complementarity in their goals in that different government levels focused on acquisitions of different land-cover types enriching the overall conservation portfolio. The assessment of conservation output was, however, dependent on the boundaries imposed, with certain watersheds and ecoregions showing a constant deficit in conservation land in comparison to the state levels. Future conservation decisions are not independent of the history of the conservation practice, as conservation in any decade is influenced by what has already been accomplished. Reconstruction of conservation histories has potential benefits at multiple scales, in multiple geographies, and conservation strategies.