The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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The edge of Tilden Park provides a buffer between wildfire-prone open spaces and the hillside homes of Kensington, Berkeley, and Oakland.
Image by William J. McClung.

Buffer Zones

Hard edges are rare in nature, yet we have often expected to create sharp transitions between protected areas and those where resources are extracted for human use. In practice, Core Reserves suffer greatly from extractive activities on their borders, and lose substantial amounts of their effective area.

The results of human activity often reach beyond the site where they occur. For instance, the freshly exposed expanse of a clear-cut leaves the adjoining trees vulnerable to being toppled by the wind. It allows extremes of heat and cold to penetrate into the forest, along with predatory species that hunt the species of the deep woods.

When Core Reserves occur right next to large clear-cuts or working mines, they become functionally much smaller than their apparent boundaries. In these cases, invasive species such as magpies and opossums range into the reserves, diminishing their effective size. Other impacts can include toxic contamination and habitat fragmentation.

These impacts can be avoided by cushioning the edges of the Core Reserves with Buffer Zones where human activity is limited in scope and impact. These areas serve the same function as a foyer, in which people remove their wet and muddy outer-garments before entering the rest of the house. Road densities are kept low to discourage incursion of poachers and others who would violate the protections established for the reserve. Buffers also reduce conflicts between humans and large predators such as grizzly bears. Designed properly, Buffers can serve as extensions Core Reserves and Wildlife Corridors.

As with the Core Reserves, these areas are managed to satisfy the needs of wildlife and ecosystems. To enhance their value, the Buffer Zones themselves can be zoned with increasingly restrictive land-uses as the Core Reserve is approached. Drive-up camping might be allowed in the outer ring, while recreation in the inner zone could be restricted to primitive camping and low-impact pursuits such as hiking, bird-watching, or cross-country skiing. Sustainable Forestry and fishing would likewise be more restrictive nearer the core reserve. Traditional cultural uses and Ecotourism are compatible uses throughout a Buffer Zone.

Around areas that are protected for their conservation values, establish buffer zones where products can be extracted from the wild, subject to limitations that ensure the continued ecological integrity of core and buffer areas alike.

Examples of this pattern in action:

Riparian Buffer Zones
A healthy riparian buffer zone consists of a complex community of plants providing both overstory and understory for complex communities of insects, birds, fish and mammals. Can this be done in 35 feet? Is it no wonder that we no longer have a viable steelhead population or salmon in the Napa River? California's riparian forests support a greater number of bird species than any other habitat type. Many bird species are threatened with extinction because of the losses of up to 95 percent of riparian vegetation in the Western U.S. The Ecopreserve on the Yountville Crossroad adjacent to the Napa River is an example of a healthy riparian habitat. In Napa County, protection of riparian wildlife depends on property owners managing their land with care.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:


Clark, T.W and S.C. Minta. Greater Yellowstone's Future: Prospects for Ecosystem Science, Management and Policy. Homestead Press. Moose, WY. 1994.

Kempf, Elizabeth, ed. Law of the Mother: Protecting Indigenous People in Protected Areas. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco, CA. 1993.

Knight, R.L., eds and P.B. Landres. Stewardship Across Boundaries. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1998.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling