I cannot accept the provocative point made by R. J. Smith and colleagues in their Opinion article (Nature 462, 280–281; 2009) that decision-making for conservation research and implementation priorities should be left to local people.

Speaking mainly from experience in North America, I believe that most local agencies (for example, US county governments) have little concept of what biodiversity is, much less how to measure, prioritize or protect it. Local land-use planning tends to be parochial and is divorced from conservation planning, which occurs on a broader geographical scale (see Lasting Landscapes, Environmental Law Institute, 2007).

Local governments often allow development in biodiversity-rich and ecologically sensitive areas, even when it is demonstrably unnecessary. In Florida, huge subdivisions and condominium complexes can sit vacant for months or even years.

This irrational development is encouraged because local agencies are controlled by politicians and powerful economic interests. They care about species conservation only when the species in question is protected under state or federal law or if it is hunted; unlisted and non-game species (especially unvertebrates) receive scant attention. The situation is aggravated because local agencies lack appropriately trained personnel for managing ecosystem conservation.

Local agencies' capabilities are likely to be even more of a problem in developing countries. Letting them set the conservation agenda by themselves could therefore be a mistake.

Academic researchers, conservation non-governmental organizations and other 'foreign' interests tend to be better informed, less subject to local political influence and more experienced in conservation planning than local agencies. Let's allow these parties to work together towards mutual conservation goals, rather than radically switching from hegemony by the broad thinkers to hegemony by parochialists.