INTERIOR:

Jewell unveils broad mitigation plan to shift away from 'project-by-project' management

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today unveiled the outlines of a new landscape-level mitigation strategy across millions of acres of federal land that she said is designed to take the department's agencies away from narrowly focused project-by-project assessments.

The mitigation strategy, detailed in a report developed by Interior's Energy and Climate Change Task Force, includes four key objectives the department will work to implement in the coming months in an effort to take a broader approach to managing public lands.

"This strategy outlines the key principles and actions we need to take to successfully shift from a reactive, project-by-project approach to more predictable and effective management of the lands and resources that we manage on behalf of the American public," Jewell said today in a statement.

The first strategy is identifying "key landscape-scale attributes" for lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and others, and then evaluating them to establish base-line conditions and projected trends. Then the agencies will develop "landscape-scale goals" for these areas, focusing on strategies that balance conservation and recreation with energy development, according to the 25-page report.

Much of this work is already underway as part of BLM's "rapid ecoregional assessments" effort, which is proposed to cover about 500,000 acres of public lands in 13 states across the West. Government and private research teams review existing data, studies and reports to compile the detailed assessments that are designed to take a broad look at large areas that share similar ecological characteristics, allowing federal and state land managers to plan coordinated strategies to address issues such as climate change and wildfires.

Interior, in a statement announcing the mitigation strategy, specifically praised the Western Governors' Association's Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, or CHAT. The online tool is designed to help land-use planners, energy developers and conservationists incorporate wildlife into decisionmaking by identifying important wildlife habitat and migration routes (E&ENews PM, Dec. 12, 2013).

BLM Director Neil Kornze last week told congressional appropriators that the development of a new geospatial mapping system to help the agency better manage federal lands is one of the agency's five priorities in its proposed $1.1 billion fiscal 2015 budget request.

"We've seen this common-sense approach evolve over time with increasing success," Jewell said in her statement. "We need to build on those successes to construct a clear, consistent and effective set of policies for the Department that will allow for the kind of clarity and forward thinking that the American people expect."

The mitigation strategy also calls for developing "efficient and effective compensatory mitigation programs" when energy development and other activities would cause "impacts that cannot be avoided or minimized."

Part of that effort has been underway for more than a year as BLM develops a regional development plan for commercial-scale solar in the Southwest. Finalized by Interior in 2012, the plan identified 17 solar energy zones (SEZs) in six Western states for streamlined development and seeks to develop systematic mitigation plans that offset lost habitat while providing regulatory certainty for developers. BLM has since identified two more SEZs in California and Arizona.

The agency last month announced it had finalized a regional mitigation strategy for the Dry Lake SEZ in southern Nevada that, among other things, proposes a pilot program establishing a per-acre mitigation fee for companies seeking to develop in the zone, with the money going toward the restoration of lands in the nearby Gold Butte Area of Critical Environmental Concern (Greenwire, March 14).

Confusion over mitigation requirements was identified as one reason why a first-ever competitive auction last October designed to spur development inside two SEZs in southern Colorado was a bust, with the solar industry submitting no bids (E&ENews PM, Oct. 24, 2013).

Overall, the strategy "highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with developing and implementing an effective mitigation policy, and describes the key principles and actions necessary to successfully shift from project-by-project management to consistent, landscape-scale, science-based management of the lands and resources for which the Department is responsible," according to the report. "In so doing, we believe that the natural and cultural assets stewarded by the Department can be managed more efficiently, effectively, and responsibly for the greater good of the nation."

Today's mitigation strategy report follows a secretarial order last year in which Jewell outlined the strategy she wanted the Energy and Climate Change Task Force to develop (Greenwire, Oct. 31, 2013).

The task force was asked to consider landscape-level planning, banking, in-lieu fee arrangements or other possible mitigation tools. It considered development of regional mitigation plans to conserve multiple resources, including wildlife, ecological, cultural and scenic resources, as well as socioeconomic resources. The task force was ordered to "harmonize" the mitigation policies of its respective bureaus and "minimize any redundancy and maximize efficiency in the review and permitting process."

"The goal is to provide greater certainty for project developers when it comes to permitting and better outcomes for conservation through more effective and efficient project planning," Jewell said today in her statement. "Through advances in science and technology, advance planning, and collaboration with stakeholders, we know that development and conservation can both benefit -- and that's the win-win this mitigation strategy sets out to achieve."

The strategy drew raves from public land advocates.

Ellis Richard, founder of the group Park Rangers for Our Lands, said National Park System lands are "threatened by challenges and conflicts when oil and gas development is done haphazardly," and he said the mitigation strategy "is an opportunity to ensure a balanced approach between oil and gas development and the protection of our parks and public lands."

"The timing couldn't be better. With mule deer populations in severe decline, we need this smart mitigation strategy that emphasizes collaboration and problem solving among agencies and stakeholders," Suzanne O'Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. "Secretary Jewell should be commended for her commitment to avoiding problems before they start and bringing everyone together for common sense solutions."

But the new mitigation strategy has critics.

Among them is Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, who said she spotted "a few warning flags" during a quick review of the report.

"The first is the fact that this is a very broad policy mandate that could enact sweeping changes to the way public lands are managed," Sgamma said in an email. "The public should have adequate opportunity to understand what the agency is doing and provide input via an open and transparent process. Just one task force selectively choosing whom it reaches out to doesn't meet basic transparency standards. The policy and its implications should be fully vetted in an open, public process that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act."

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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