Working Group:
Better Land-Use Decisions

Many critical land-use decisions all over the world are being made without the benefit of understanding the full implications of those decisions. Not just for their effects on biodiversity, but also on the economic returns and benefits from nature that alternative uses of these lands might provide or maintain. Could a new data-driven framework — one that integrates and compares tradeoffs among multiple land-use options and their relative values — generate greater, more durable returns for nature and people’s prosperity?

Photo: © Haroldo Palo, Jr.
Photo: © Steven Meyer

Working Group Summary

Understanding the Values, Effects and Tradeoffs of Land-Use Decisions

To help overcome the knowledge gap about the impacts of land decisions, scientists have developed a theoretical framework of tools that takes advantage of new enhanced predictive models and sophisticated economic measures (such as the market effects of specific land-use choices). This framework could enable decision-makers to see at unprecedented breadth and depth the full range of potential tradeoffs different land-use choices might yield among social, economic and environmental values.

The Better Land-Use Decisions Working Group will take the framework from applied theory to the real world by piloting its application to land-use decision-making for specific geographies in the United States and Brazil. The framework will identify land-use scenarios that simultaneously improve human well-being and identify conservation solutions that are sustainable. Additionally, by identifying all the tradeoffs among different choices, the framework could also enable the most effective and efficient use of the hundreds of millions of conservation dollars that are earmarked for land protection every year.

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The Challenge

Brazil and the United States: Transforming Land-Use Planning Through Data

The Better Land-Use Decisions Working Group is testing the efficacy of this next generation framework in the United States and Brazil. That’s because these countries offer immediate opportunities to refine decision models pinpointing those land-use plans yielding the highest ROI for a suite of nature and human well-being variables.

United States

In the United States, the Northern Great Plains is one of the world’s largest intact grassland biomes and is highly threatened by future agricultural development. Pressure from biofuel production along with increased food demand has increased crop prices and led to agricultural expansion in the region.To address this challenge, the Working Group has identified opportunities to implement better decision-making models.

One involves informing the work of the U.S. Natural Conservation Resource Service, which protects more private lands each year with easements than any other agency. The framework will help one of the service’s programs, the Sage Grouse Initiative, answer questions about how to target easements and other investments for the most effective return. The other opportunity is to help target the most strategic allocation of U.S. Farm Bill funds — the largest source of conservation funding in the United States — for biodiversity conservation and protection of ecosystem services.


In Brazil, the national Forest Code is intended to protect 193 million hectares of forest but has historically been poorly enforced. To increase compliance, several major certification initiatives covering soy, sugarcane and beef require that source farms comply with the Forest Code. Recent revisions allow purchase of credits from properties with “excess” forest reserves to properties with inadequate forest reserves.

The Working Group will use the framework to identify how certification of different agricultural sectors and trading rules could maximize biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits, considering that maintaining larger reserves in some areas may have greater benefits than maintaining a fixed percentage of forest on every property.

Brazil also offers additional opportunities for the framework to transform land-use decision-making there. It could inform the work of the Amazon Region Protected Areas program, an ongoing process to expand and strengthen the Brazilian National System of Protected Areas that has a goal of protecting at least 60 million hectares in the Amazon.

It could also help policymakers guide smarter agricultural development in the Brazilian Pantanal, a vast seasonal floodplain of the upper Paraguay River basin, where highly productive and biodiverse native savannas and wetlands have supported both wildlife and traditional cattle grazing for more than 200 years.

Today, the Pantanal’s diverse environmental, ecological and ecosystem service values are highly threatened by changes in land-use practices, mainly conversion of traditionally-grazed native savannas and wetlands on the floodplain to planted non-native grasslands.

Read about this inquiry.

The Inquiry

Maximizing Benefits for Both Human Well Being and Nature Conservation

The Working Group’s approach will incorporate both the impacts of markets and policies on land-use decisions. It will use innovative models for its U.S. work that explicitly incorporate the market feedback effects of large-scale land-use changes (e.g., from forest to crops), which often shift the supply of key commodities and therefore shift both commodity prices and net economic returns to land. (Land-use modeling based only in geography typically fails to incorporate dollar measures of net returns to land and price feedbacks from land-use changes.)

The Working Group will also expand upon ongoing efforts to develop better spatially explicit models of the benefits nature provides us and to incorporate better predictive models into a policy analysis and optimization framework that shows the potential direct and indirect consequences of policies on ecosystem services, habitat for biodiversity, and economic objectives.

Key Outcomes

Models will focus on four key sets of outcomes: a) habitat for biodiversity, b) water quality and water quantity related ecosystem services, c) carbon sequestration, and d) economic returns from grazing, crop and timber production, and other market oriented activities. Such a data-driven land use decision process also serves to limit unintended or unanticipated consequences by giving planners a virtual glimpse into the likely outcomes of their plans before the first park is dedicated or bulldozer is started.

Working Group members will apply this framework in five key land use decision-making contexts to:

  • Inform reserve design in the Brazilian Amazon,
  • Improve enforcement and application of Brazil’s Forest Code,
  • Inform plans for sustainable grazing in the Brazilian Pantanal,
  • Advance sage grouse conservation in the United States, and
  • Inform plans for sustainable grazing in the United States’ Northern Great Plains.

In Brazil, for example, the Working Group will identify how certification of different agricultural sectors and trading rules could maximize biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits, considering that maintaining larger reserves in some areas may have greater benefits than maintaining a fixed percentage of forest on every property.

Time-Sensitive Opportunity

Because these opportunities are very time-sensitive, all Working Group members were chosen based not only expertise and regional knowledge, but also because they are currently engaged in material ways in at least one of the decision-making contexts above. The Working Group has a keen eye toward the quickest, most reliable pathways to information dissemination and influencing the decision process in each region.

Meet the team.

Photo: Chris Helzer

The Team

Better Land-Use Decisions Team