The intention and practice of conservation reserve selection are different. A major reason for systems of reserves is to sustain biological diversity. This involves protecting examples of as many natural features, e.g. species, communities or environments, as possible. In reality, however, new reserves have rarely been dedicated for their representation of features. Furthermore, the opportunism that has characterized the development of reserve systems can actually jeopardize the representation of all features in reserves through the inefficient allocation of limited resources. More systematic approaches are essential if reserves are to play their role in protecting biodiversity. Some basic principles for conservation planning are emerging from recent systematic procedures for reserve selection. These principles will help to link intention and practice. Copyright © 1993. Published by Elsevier Ltd.