- by Allison Rolfe

Habitat conservation planning (hcp), meant to implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the protection of intact habitats rather than individual species, is being used as the primary planning tool in more and more regions across the country. With initiation, adoption and implementation happening at a fast pace, few have begun to assess the implications of the interim and cumulative losses that result from these politically-charged plans.

The concept is this: plan "pro-actively" for habitats, as opposed to individual species, thereby avoiding future listings (as threatened or endangered under the ESA) of species that are dependent upon those habitats. The first part of the premise is valid: wise long-term planning identifies the desired shape the landscape should take over time and implements short-term projects in compliance with this future concept. Pro-active, comprehensive planning requires foresight and vision.

Consider the political context however. . . Future focus and the basic concepts of wise planning should be incorporated into all land-use decision-making processes, but tie the decision to an assurance of no future listings (the second part of the hcp premise), and a clear picture begins to emerge of the true political motivation. Expediency, without concern for even the immediate future, is the name of the game. Developers want permits, assurances, and short-term profit. Politicians want immediate gratification, campaign contributions, and guaranteed re- election.

In San Diego, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity has been chronicling the ways in which the political context has shaped the outcome of the hcp process. With more threatened and endangered species than any other region in North America, along with some of the most aggressive developers and dismal planning, San Diego has been identified as a model for the nation.

Philosophically there are many controversies that arise from the hcp debate. Some more common themes include: "why draw lines around, and limit nature, rather than putting a limit on urban growth?," "can we manage and plan a preserve with the limited amount of research behind hcp planning?" and, "is this better than the status quo, and should we be settling for merely, 'the best we can get'?." Practically, however, the questions that must be answered relate to the political context, disparities of power, and the affect this has on the MSCP outcome.

Several major problems arise in the hcp process from the fact that some stakeholders have more leverage than others. The major flaws include, inequitable distribution of burden for assembling the preserve, improper use of hcp-type planning, and unwieldy complexity. The problem can be summarized: special interests seeking short-term gain have been successful in inappropriately using the regional hcp process as the only tool for land-use and conservation planning, shifting the burden away from developers to the public, and doing it at such a tremendous pace that it has been virtually impossible to assess the implications.

First, decision-makers are operating under the apparent assumption that hcp's are the only mechanism we need to conserve species and associated biological resources. This assumption is false. Hcp preserves were never meant to address all of the land-use and species issues in a given region. The hcp process was meant to be a new tool to promote habitat protection and economic growth by precluding the need to list some species, but it was never intended to be the only tool. The MSCP program supplements and improves on conventional administration of existing species protection laws and local land-use regulations, it cannot be substituted for them.

Some species need the "critical care" afforded by the ESA, and it is far too late to attempt to address their needs through pro-active planning. There is a common misperception by the public, at the encouragement of decision-makers and monied interests, that the ESA is too restrictive and therefore unnecessary. Seen as a more flexible and fair approach, hcp planning has been embraced as an alternative. The measures provided in hcp plans presume that they are to be regarded as an adequate substitution for traditional ESA "safety net"-type management conditions. The ESA was designed, however, to mandate action instead of merely recommending guidelines. This aspect of the Act is an inherent design characteristic, indicative of a law that was intended to be a last effort at preventing species' decline and extinction when the discretion of decision-makers could not be relied upon to decide in favor of the long-term benefits of habitat conservation.

A second major hcp problem also arises from wide-spread misperceptions. The MSCP, as an example, is marketed as a nature preserve, an amenity, and a public benefit. It is commonly assumed that developers are participating mostly out of kindness and concern. It is rarely revealed that the actual intent of a region-wide hcp is to streamline environmental regulations, and transfer control from the federal government to local jurisdictions. Existing regulations are, in fact, more restrictive than the hcp concept.

Under current conditions, developers are required to mitigate impacts to environmentally sensitive land under various local, state and federal laws. This mitigation is designed to compensate for significant impacts that cannot be avoided. An hcp preserve can be thought of as a mitigation bank for future impacts. In theory, it should cost taxpayers close to nothing because the burden for building the preserve lies with the developers who want permits and must therefore mitigate their impacts. This is not the case however: it is expected that the MSCP will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Because of misinformation about the plan developers stand to gain a windfall, and existing regulatory mechanisms will continue to be dismantled based on the false premise that hcp's take care of it all.

Finally, hcp's are confusing and taking over the country at an alarming rate. An inherently complex task, the hcp process should be given the consideration needed for any long-term plan. It should be done slowly and carefully, measuring success along the way.

It's questionable, at best, whether a concept that has been so corrupted by the political context should serve as a national model. The evolution of hcp's in some regions, given some contexts, may be more successful than in others, but it is difficult not to be alarmed when a growth-driven region such as San Diego is chosen as the model. Regardless of regional implications however, hcp's are shaping-up to have a tremendous national impact as a model for revising the Endangered Species Act. This country should acknowledge the need for new tools for planning and remember the intent of the ESA. We need both. Amidst the confusion, one thing is certain, if hcp policies are codified and substituted for original ESA language we can expect an increase in the decline and extinction of species.