A Better Way to Regulate the Protection of Wildlife Habitat
A Wild Landscape Protected
The road winds, nearly spiraling downhill only to climb upward again, over and over through a vast landscape of California grassland pine and live oak. Above golden eagles soar over a wilderness of mountain lions, burrowing owls and 15 other rare wildlife and plants. We drove through a wild place as devoid of people as any other in the US. After a series of harrowing switchbacks, the road ended and we found ourselves in one of the most economically vibrant and densely populated areas in the world. Before us the human spectacle of the Santa Clara Valley, the city of San Jose blending into San Francisco and Oakland. Silicon Valley vibrated inside a dull fog that ran north and out of sight. The contrast could not be starker.
Ironically the wild landscape and sprawling economic engine depend on each other. In a feat of modern-day conservation, California and US natural resource agencies conceived of and implemented a conservation plan, the Santa Clara Regional Conservation Plan, that smoothed a clear path for natural resource protection and development in this bustling center of the digital era. The plan is one of 22 in the state all collectively known as the Natural Communities Conservation Program or NCCP. They innovate from other conservation efforts by designating areas best suited for people, areas serviced by roads, water and sewer, and those best suited to rare species, large unbroken patches of undeveloped habitat. Agencies streamline complicated permitting for developers who pay fees that go to compensating rural landowners for the loss of their right to develop. The planning avoids lengthy and costly battles over the destruction of natural land and provides rural landowners income to compensate the loss of land value that comes with protection.
A Far Cry From Planning in NJ
NCCP plans are one reason the bay area economy hums without minimal natural resource conflicts, and rural communities glow with the reflected glory of the untrammeled countryside. It’s a win-win for people and wildlife. The plans have their weaknesses, funding and inadequate monitoring for example but one cannot deny the successful preservation of a vast land of natural beauty in landscapes of enormous economic value. It’s a far cry from NJ.
Here in the Garden State, natural lands disappear almost without restraint, despite having one of the most restrictive land use regulations in the country. In their day the Wetlands Act, the Pinelands Commission, Coastal Area Protection Act (CAFRA), the Highlands Council, were innovative and promised great protection. Thirty years later one cannot ignore the sprawl devouring the state’s natural areas. Satellite imagery comparing 30 years of land use show almost no change in the rate of destruction.
Why? Because the rules are fundamentally unfair. Each land use rule has exceptions that can only be exploited with costly consultants or lawyers thus allowing the wealthy and powerful avenues to bypass protections. Only the least powerful suffer the full weight of the regulations, so the result is a crazy patchwork of protection and development. It’s the worst case scenario – a costly system of protection that does not protect
A New System of Habitat Conservation Planning
But NJ has its nascent California-like system waiting to be put into action. Over the last eight years, Dr. Richard Lathrop and I have developed an approach to Habitat Conservation Plans better suited to a smaller state like NJ. Our planning invokes satellite-mapping models used to estimate the ecological value of all the state’s open space. Using five widely accepted measures of habitat integrity for most of the state 80 rare species, we can estimate the ecological value of a place and the value lost through development. This objective framework allows learning to take place, so like market models, they can become more accurate with experience. Our models can be used to plan a development so it has the least impact, by comparing sites or reorganization on site. In other words, it allows a flexibility in regulation that can be used by any qualified consultant, landowner or conservation professional in the state to estimate the best path to development and at the least cost.
This is the first step. The second is to replace the lost value so there is no net loss of value. Using an objective value of ecological cost our models can provide alternatives for replacement. It may be the purchase new land that links other protected land, giving them all added value. Or managing an existing protecting land to become more suitable or productive, like thinning a dense forest for Barred Owls or restoring beach productivity for horseshoe crabs and red knots.
Imagine a Land Use Regulatory System that is Helps both Developers and Rural Landowners
The third step would transform conservation in NJ. Rather than requiring each landowner or developer to find habitat to replace lost habitats, we propose a new conservation banking system, not unlike that used by California agencies. If a development must take place, a landowner, a real estate developer or a local community can pay the equivalent to replace it to a designated conservation land bank who can use the money to pay landowners to do the work. The bank can be run by a local community, a nonprofit community or conservation group, who has already formed a network of landowners willing to make money doing the work. Fees and replacement costs would go mostly to rural land landowners: farmers, conservation groups or agencies who wish to expand or improve the natural value of their lands.
This new system of regulating the development of wildland can be formed around a single principle – no net loss of ecological value. In other words, land will be lost to development but its value to wildlife could be replaced and the net effect would be zero. Over time we can improve the values as we gain experience, in the estimation of value and the outcome of replacing it. We could develop without long-term ecological cost.
Why Not Choose Change?
And why not? The current system costs landowners, developers, and communities great amounts of money but has failed to stop the loss of wildlife and their habitat. A no net loss vision would allow land to be lost in places where it should, inside towns or cities, adjacent to already placed infrastructure like roads and sewers for example. It’s not always the case that an endangered species habitat needs to be defended in areas of great development. Even if small parcels of valuable land were saved, they often end up surrounded by development that destroys the parcels ecological integrity anyway. NJ is littered with protected lands no longer useful to the wildlife that once inhabited them.
Imagine predictable and more efficient permitting that creates new funding to create a more attractive version of the future for our Garden State. Imagine a system that both facilitates development, values entrepreneurial habitat restoration while keeping rural communities economically viable. And why not create a new vision? Our state is ground zero for the impacts of climate change and preserving natural lands are among the essential tools in the battle. With this plan, we can spur development, protect and restore natural places and take a meaningful role in the struggle to save our planet.