New White House policy commits to protect irreplaceable resources and sets ‘no net loss’ standard for other important resources

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument (AZ).

Bob Wick, BLM. 

This week, President Obama highlighted the importance of our vast and varied public lands by issuing a new Presidential Memorandum calling for a smarter approach to development and conservation on America’s public lands. The Department of the Interior also published companion guidance in the form of a Departmental Manual for its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management.

Together, these policies amount to a major evolution in how departments and agencies manage public lands. This framework puts forward a more consistent approach that will aid conservation efforts and provide predictability to developers of renewable energy—which, in turn, will help protect our clean air and water and fight climate change. Importantly, this approach recognizes that some places are irreplaceable—simply too special to develop—and sets a historic ‘no net loss’ standard for unavoidable impacts to other important natural resources.

These commitments build upon the “landscape approach” taken by Secretary Jewell’s Interior Department, emphasizing the need for federal agencies to guide energy development and other projects away from sensitive wildlands and wildlife habitat. And where development does occur, we must do better to offset impacts by protecting and restoring other important land and habitat. The policies emphasize that this work should all be done with an eye towards addressing climate change impacts and resilience, such as by protecting a diversity of habitats and preparing for shifting wildlife movement patterns.

Here is a short summary of the key components of this new approach and what they mean for conservation, with examples of projects that have used this approach in the past and could be models going forward.

  1. Focus development in low-conflict places where projects are likely to succeed. Agencies should use landscape-scale plans to look across regions and prioritize construction of projects in low-conflict areas with excellent development potential, such as lands with high solar and wind resource values that are already degraded and are near roads and transmission lines.

    Past success: BLM’s Western Solar Plan designated low-conflict Solar Energy Zones and permitted the first projects in a zone outside of Las Vegas in less than a year—less than half the average time for projects outside of zones.

  2. Avoid sensitive areas – and commit to their conservation. Energy and other development should be avoided in areas with “irreplaceable values” – special conservation, wildlife and cultural values that cannot be restored or replaced. The Wilderness Society is committed to working to ensure that agencies also consistently take the next step and commit to conservation of these areas through protective designations and management.

    Past success: To protect the iconic greater sage-grouse, BLM designated millions of acres of prime sagebrush habitat across the west as conservation areas where the priority is management to maintain habitat values and the health of the species.

  3. Minimize and offset impacts. Even appropriately sited projects leave a large footprint. Companies should minimize impacts during construction and offset unavoidable impacts through “compensatory mitigation” on nearby lands – protecting or restoring additional habitat and other values lost to development. At a minimum, conservation gains from mitigation must result in no net loss of wildlife habitat and other values, with the goal of achieving a net benefit whenever possible. Conservation gains must last at least as long as impacts from development do.

    Agencies are also directed to encourage “advance compensation” which provides environmental benefits before projects are built. These actions yield conservation credits that can be purchased from “mitigation banks” or through dynamic exchanges to help developers offset their impacts, increasing permitting efficiency.

    Past successes: Regional Mitigation Strategies for Solar Energy Zones and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are advancing a strategic approach to protecting and restoring lands with similar resources and values lost to development.

    BLM also signed a “Durability Agreement” with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that formalizes how tools such as conservation easements and rights of way can protect BLM lands used as mitigation sites to offset impacts from nearby development.

These policies will help modernize management of energy development and improve conservation outcomes. Additional guidance will be developed across a suite of departments and agencies managing public lands and resources, and we’ll continue to engage to make sure that actions on the ground live up to the promise of these policies that help chart a course to a 21st century program.