Questions raised about influential conservation software

In recent years, many large conservation plans — including the biggie that led Australia to ban fishing on a third of the Great Barrier Reef — were produced using a computer program called Marxan. Now, Australian professor Hugh P. Possingham, who helped develop the program in 1998, is raising questions about it. In a recent study, Possingham found that unless plans generated by the program are implemented within a year — a rare thing for plans of any size — they are not as effective as the general rules of thumb conservationists used in the dark, primitive pre-software days. The problem, he said, is that big plans are often static, while environmental conditions and patterns of land ownership are not. Many conservationists took umbrage at Possingham’s conclusions, noting that the sort of blueprints put out by the software help raise money for conservation. “If you think big and have a comprehensive plan and have a map in front of decision makers and donors,” said Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund, “you have a much better chance of generating the funds you need.”