Reshaping Habitat Conservation Plans for Species Recovery: An Introduction of a Series of Articles on Habitat Conservation Plans

Article excerpt


One of the hottest debates among Endangered Species Act (ESA)(1) policy experts is about habitat conservation plans (HCPs), the legal device by which the federal government authorizes habitat disturbing activities by private and other nonfederal landowners in return for conservation commitments.(2) The Clinton Administration has aggressively promoted HCPs as a win-win method for implementing the ESA on nonfederal lands. As a result of the Administration's efforts, over 200 plans covering nine million acres of land have been approved in the past four years.(3) Prior to the Administration's arrival in Washington, a mere fourteen plans had been developed and approved(4) Many conservationists and independent scientists have expressed serious concerns about the Administration's HCP initiatives, arguing that important habitat is being destroyed pursuant to HCPs without adequate consideration of species' recovery needs.(5)

In an effort to focus attention on HCPs and the overall problem of declining wildlife on nonfederal lands, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) sponsored two HCP-related events. In November 1996, it held an activists' workshop in Oregon where 150 conservation professionals and volunteers from ten states shared information and began formulating HCP strategies. In May 1997, NWF convened a national HCP conference that brought together roughly 280 activists, policymakers, representatives of regulated interests, and leading academics in Washington, D.C. for two days of discussion and debate. This introduction and the four articles that immediately follow were prepared following these exciting events and reflect some of the thinking that emerged. In a parallel effort, several speakers at the national HCP conference contributed articles to Endangered Species UPDATE, a policy journal from the University of Michigan, for a special HCP edition to be released in September 1997.(6)

Although the articles in this symposium shed light on different aspects of the HCP debate, the unifying theme is that HCPs are likely to have enormous implications for the future of biological diversity in the United States. HCPs and related plans are the current Administration's primary strategy for protecting imperiled species on nonfederal lands, and these lands provide important habitat for virtually all of the nation's imperiled species.(7) To date, the environmental community has generally not been involved in shaping HCP policy. If we are to conserve this nation's rich natural heritage, we will need to focus on influencing the next wave of HCPs--the Administration estimates that another 200 will be developed in the next few years--and on ensuring that the plans are consistent with species recovery. The remainder of this introduction makes recommendations on how the goals of the ESA might best be achieved.


Recently developed habitat conservation plans (HCPs) have been roundly criticized by conservationists and independent scientists for allowing substantial habitat destruction without appropriate consideration of species' long-term survival needs.(8) In deciding what to do about HCPs, one must first decide whether they are an appropriate conceptual device for conserving imperiled species on nonfederal lands. If HCPs are an appropriate device, then the HCP debate turns not on whether to develop HCPs, but on how HCPs should be improved.

A. The Need to Improve Rather Than to Abandon HCPs

Some in the environmental movement have castigated the very concept of the HCP as an unwarranted concession to developers and resource extraction interests, a concession that they claim is by definition harmful to imperiled species.(9) However, this approach ignores the fact that HCPs potentially can bring about conservation gains that could never be achieved by sole reliance up,on the prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for nonfederal lands. …