Mitigation’s Matriculation

By Published On: April 11, 2013

Land swaps to allow development to go forward in dwindling habitats have largely failed, particularly in the areas of wetlands and coastal land mitigation. In the 1990s, the land swaps were far from comparable—i.e the developed wetlands were often replaced with very different land that had little habitat value and there was inadequate or no funding for agency management/oversight. The California Coastal Commission, which has used “in lieu” mitigation to offset lost habitat—from restoration to land swaps—concluded all strategies have “drawbacks and limitations.” The biggest shortcoming is the amount of money required to undertake a mitigation program. “Numerous partially successful or failed mitigation projects attest to the fact that mitigation is not a panacea,” the commission noted. “Past experience clearly shows a great deal of effort is required by all parties to ensure successful mitigation.” The Ivanpah solar project in lieu mitigation deal avoids the biggest problem—lack of oversight funds. It includes $5.2 million for management and oversight “in perpetuity.” That is a big improvement over traditional land swap programs although how long that funding lasts remains to be seen. In addition, the state’s $10 million renewable loan program allows the purchase of large swaths of continuous habitat in place of “postage stamp” sized mitigation parcels, according to Armand Gonzales, California Fish and Wildlife special advisor. This strategy is a big step in the right direction. But it has limits, including that it is a state program restricted to lands only in California. There also is a limited amount of private undisturbed holdings amidst public lands that can be bought. Only “high quality undisturbed land” in California with acreage suitable for the support of listed species is considered, said Gonzales. The state border limitation also is an issue. The land bought in the west Mojave Desert to make up for the tortoises killed and damaged by the Ivanpah solar project, for example, is home to tortoises considered genetically distinct from the ones on the Ivanpah site. Its closer relative lives on land in Nevada, according to Ileene Anderson, wildlands desert director for the Center for Biological Diversity. But overall the loan program, which is authorized until the end of this year and is expected to be extended, appears to have a lot going for it. More so if other developers who plan to build renewable projects on public land follow suit. “I think we will see more activity. We have gotten a lot of questions,” said Gonzales. The state Department of Fish & Wildlife has bought 10,281 acres of undisturbed private land to mitigate ecological harm by renewable developments on public lands. Two land conservancies hold title and were given management funds. The department holds conservation easements on all parcels. One possible avenue for expanding it beyond a state mitigation fee program is via the federal-state collaborative of stakeholders, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. This plodding process seeks to thoughtfully expand renewable development in the desert while minimizing the habitat and other ecosystem impacts. Last week, the desert renewable energy planning group proposed streamlining permits for renewable projects on public lands in designated areas. Expedited permits would be available for projects on land determined to have high renewable potential and low biological impacts that have undergone species surveys. The accelerated permits include fee-based mitigation.

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