Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation

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The Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation (“Open Standards” or “OS”, hereafter) is an adaptive planning framework utilised by local governments and NGOs around the world to collaboratively and systematically conserve flora and fauna. The OS was created by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) – a collaborative venture of conservation organizations seeking to investigate and disseminate strategies to improve the practice of conservation. Through extensive review of past approaches to conservation planning being used internationally, the CMP designed the Open Standards to learn from the shortcomings of past models and act as “a dynamic and active catalyst for promoting innovation in monitoring and evaluation in conservation” (CMP, 2016).

Initiated with this intention, the Open Standards is made distinctive by its focus on synthesizing goals of human well-being and ecological integrity; linking actions to desired impacts; and incorporating adaptation and evaluation from the very beginning of the planning process. This framework operates on the premise that conservation planners do not need, nor have time to wait for perfect information. Therefore, OS instead encourages a synthesis of all different types of information throughout the planning process. The iterative nature of this approach allows for faster implementation – instead of a 400-page conservation plan, it encourages practitioners to start with just a couple key elements, ones that can be revisited and made more comprehensive at a later time.

The OS is intended to be neither formulaic nor prescriptive. Indeed, the name ‘Open Standards’ was selected because the format is open-source, permitting practitioners to engage with the framework and use it freely. In the case where the suggested format is followed, however, the steps are outlined with thorough detail and guidance. The five steps of the Open Standards are as follows:

Step 1: Conceptualize

At first, this step involves identifying the planning context. Such questions in this phase may include: What do we care about and think is critical? What is the project area? What is the timeframe of the project? Who are the players? After these initial questions are addressed and conservation priorities are established, planners must assess the health of the species being conserved and determine what threats are harming those species. Furthermore, this phase is apt for determining what threats are the most concerning and what factors may be contributing to the current situation. Above all, this helps to develop a preliminary conceptual model that outlines the cause and effect relationships within a conservation situation, wherein conservation targets, direct and indirect threats and opportunities, and conservation strategies are all visually and conceptually mapped.

One way to approach conceptual mapping is to identify the ecosystem services that nature provides to humans and how each service links back to a conservation target and identifies trade-offs between varying targets, as seen below:

Ecosystem Services as the Link

Conservation Scope       Ecosystem Services          Human Well-being

Species                                Provisioning                      Livable communities (+)

Habitat                                 Supporting                         Recreation fishing (-)

Ecosystems                         Regulating                         Resource industries (-)  


[(+) increase conservation (-) decrease conservation]

Another important aspect of conceptual modelling is assessing threats. This could include the impact of dams on watersheds, or an unsustainable timber harvest on a forest ecosystem. As shown in Table 1, threats can also be human well-being targets, so it forces a project team to determine trade-offs through a collaborative decision-making process. The overall intention here is to remove value judgements that may lean toward either conservation or the economy, and instead recognize the interests of all stakeholders by recognizing how stakeholders like hunting-guides, ranchers, developers, loggers, mountain bikers, and others will perceive the threats identified in a plan. Once a more inclusive process is established, this allows for threat-ranking (from low to very high) to take place, which can be based on the following criteria (CMP, 2013):

1. Extend/Scope: spatial proportion of the biodiversity target affected within 10 years given continuation of current circumstances and trends

2. Severity: level of damage given continuation of current circumstances and trends

3. Irreversibility: degree to which the effects of a threat can be reversed and biodiversity target restored, if the threat no longer existed

In practice, a conceptual model for a watershed using the Open Standards may be outlined as follows: (1.) A conservation target of increased fish population; (2.) Threats, such as pollution, are identified; (3.) Direct factors influencing the threat of pollution may include urbanization and inadequate zoning regulation and enforcement; (4) Indirect factors could include government policies that promote urbanization and a lack of capacity for municipalities to undertake effective land use planning. This process would be repeated for all other threats applicable to that particular conservation target as well as any additional targets (ex: riparian zones, bird habitat). Afterward, both targets and threats are ranked based on their overall magnitude so that planning prioritizes the most pressing conservation actions.

Step 2: Plan Actions and Monitoring

The second step of the Open Standards involves a higher level of detail in order to formulate a formal action plan. Questions to be asked in this step may include: What are our ultimate goals? What should we be measuring (ex: how many trees? how many salmon?) What should we be reporting on? Who is responsible? What change would we like to see? How are we going to do it? These questions lead to a more comprehensive outline of goals, strategies, assumptions, and objectives for a conservation project.

Goals – These represent the long-term desired result of conservation planning. Ideally, goals will be “linked to targets, impact oriented, measurable, time limited, and specific.” (CMP, 2013, pg. 18). For example, if a goal such as ‘human wellbeing’ is chosen, the project team will have to define the targets linked to that goal, which may include, for example, access to food through improved pollination and other ecosystem services.

Strategies – This encompasses the ways to intervene so that the threats identified in Step 1 can be resolved or mitigated. What is critical at this step is weighing the benefits and costs of different strategies and deciding where and where not to intervene. For example, if a goal is to incorporate climate change adaptation into planning for conservation of wildlife, it would be important to determine if the uncertainties of future climate impacts would make it difficult or detrimental to incorporate this into the overall strategy for conservation.

Assumptions – There are often assumptions made in planning that indicate how a strategy will lead to a particular goal. The Open Standards outlines assumptions through ‘results chains’, which visually outlines how a strategy will transform a ‘current state’ to a ‘desired state’. An example provided by the CMP (see Table in attachments.)

The second essential component of Step 2 is developing a monitoring plan. Doing so requires the project team or manager to identify the intended audience of the conservation act as well as the information needs of this audience. A sample of audiences and information expectations would look like this:

Table 2: Common Monitoring Audiences and their Information Needs (CMP, 2013, p. 25)

Project team

· How is the project progressing; Are results chains assumptions valid; What is working, what is not, and why; Is your team achieving its objectives in the time frame expected; How to improve the project

Project partners

· How is the project progressing; Are results chains assumptions valid; What is working, what is not, and why; Is your team achieving its objectives in the time frame expected; How to improve the project


· How is the project progressing, are projects achieving objectives in the time frame expected

Communities or stakeholders affected

· How is the project progressing; How will the project impact them

Conservation community

· Did the project achieve objectives and conservation results; what worked, what did not, and why

Academics and Students

· What is working, what is not, and why

Auditors, Certifying entities

· Is the project complying with laws and regulations; Is it following best practices indicators – good indicators must be measurable, precise, consistent, and sensitive; Your results chains


With a clear notion of who has standing in the project, it becomes more apparent how information derived from monitoring should be communicated to a project’s intended audiences.

3. Implement Actions and Monitoring

Implementation is by far the most significant step the Open Standards process, as it encompasses all actions planned and formulated in Steps 1 and 2. There are three critical phases in this step: the first is to develop work plan and timeline for short-term actions and monitoring. This step is where a more comprehensive summary of all activities and tasks needed to complete the plan and monitoring are outlined. The work plan and timeline should account for who is responsible for each task, when each task is to be completed, and the resources (financial or others) needed for implementing each task.

The second phase is to establish and refine a project budget. While the previous step includes a preliminary analysis of budgeting for each task, this is a more refined valuation of the costs. In most cases, funding has to be prioritized based on strategies identified as the most important in the previous steps. It is important for budgeting in this phase to occur in a timely manner as it only reflects short term implementation. Finally, the third and most crucial phase, is the implementation of a project’s actions and monitoring. If monitoring involves GIS, then mapping will begin; if it entails interviewing stakeholders, then interviewees will be selected and the process will commence. This stage sets into motion all plans formulated up to this point.

4. Analyze, Use, Adapt

Once implemented, the project then requires routine analysis of data to ensure it becomes actionable and meaningful information for the project team. More specifically, analyses should focus on assessing the project budget as well as the progress of achieving stated tasks and goals.

In order to use data collected to practice adaptive management, a project must have consistent and reliable data so that a strategy can adapt to changing conditions and contexts in which a plan has been implemented. It allows you to determine if a project is on track with the conceptual model and results chains created in Step 1. Furthermore, data analysis creates an opportunity to access the usefulness of ecological indicators established, and can begin the process of adaptive learning.

The CMP recommends the following questions during this analysis phase:

· To what extent do you have sufficient resources (e.g., financial, human, administrative, political) to carry out your project?

· To what extent do you have the right skills among your team members to implement your project well?

· To what extent do you have the physical infrastructure and equipment (e.g., office space, vehicles, computers) you need to do your job?

· To what extent does your project team operate smoothly or are there areas where you could improve how the team functions? (e.g., communications, delegation of responsibilities)


5. Capture and Share Learning

Finally, the Open Standards project cycle ends with capturing and sharing the lessons learned from plan formulation and implementation. It is important in this stage to evaluate the outcomes of a conservation project and to communicate them to all audiences of the project, as well as the broader conservation community.

One important aspect of this step in the OS is routinely documenting the lessons learned throughout the process, including successes and failures in all prior phases. This promotes double-loop learning, where experiences in a given planning scenario inform all future planning activities. The other key aspect of Step 5 is creating a learning environment, one where feedback is shared frequently, project leaders are committed to innovation and encourage experimentation, and where both successes and failures are shared widely to help foster a community of practice, locally and globally.

Sharing and visualizing conservation plans through

The Conservation Measures Partnership currently offers a platform,, for undertaking conservation planning using the Open Standards framework. This platform is optional, though it provides access to conservation plans from organizations globally and is a valuable resource to all those interested in utilising this innovating planning framework and joining the OS community of practitioners.



Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP). (2013). Open standards for the practice of conservation: Version 3.0. Retrieved from

Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP). (2015). About the Open Standards: History. Retrieved from:

Foundations of Success (FOS). (2009). Conceptualizing and planning conservation projects and programs: A training manual. Retrieved from: 2012.pdf

Orr, C. and Hook, A. (2016). Natural Resources Planning using the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver, BC. (Workshop)


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