Conservation groups have always faced difficult decisions in prioritizing which natural areas to protect. The traditional way has been to place the greatest importance on the rarest, most pristine, or unique places. But in recent years, consideration of costs vs. benefits has entered the discussion.

Now economists Amy Ando and Mindy Mallory of the University of Illinois have introduced modern portfolio theory (MPT)—a tool familiar to the financial industry—to the world of biology and...

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