Spatially explicit information on the financial costs of conservation actions can improve the ability of conservation planning to achieve ecological and economic objectives, but the magnitude of this improvement may depend on the accuracy of the cost estimates. Data on costs of conservation actions are inherently uncertain. For example, the cost of purchasing a property for addition to a protected-area network depends on the individual landholder's preferences, values, and aspirations, all of which vary in space and time, and the effect of this uncertainty on the conservation priority of a site is relatively untested. We investigated the sensitivity of the conservation priority of sites to uncertainty in cost estimates. We explored scenarios for expanding (four-fold) the protected-area network in Queensland, Australia to represent a range of vegetation types, species, and abiotic environments, while minimizing the cost of purchasing new properties. We estimated property costs for 17, 790 10 × 10 km sites with data on unimproved land values. We systematically changed property costs and noted how these changes affected conservation priority of a site. The sensitivity of the priority of a site to changes in cost data was largely dependent on a site's importance for meeting conservation targets. Sites that were essential or unimportant for meeting targets maintained high or low priorities, respectively, regardless of cost estimates. Sites of intermediate conservation priority were sensitive to property costs and represented the best option for efficiency gains, especially if they could be purchased at a lower price than anticipated. Thus, uncertainty in cost estimates did not impede the use of cost data in conservation planning, and information on the sensitivity of the conservation priority of a site to estimates of the price of land can be used to inform strategic conservation planning before the actual price of the land is known.
© 2010 University of Queensland. Journal compilation © 2010 Society for Conservation Biology.