Interior Bill Promotes ‘Cooperative Conservation’
Proposed legislation from the U.S. Department of the Interior is a positive first step but stops short of needed changes in how regulators address the Endangered Species Act, according to NAHB environmental regulatory analysts.
The proposed Cooperative Conservation Enhancement Act “removes barriers to fostering additional cooperation among federal agencies, local and state governments, and the private sector,” according to an Interior press release, “and gives the department greater opportunities to enter into partnerships with private individuals, companies, organizations and government entities in order to achieve conservation goals on a landscape scale.”
Unveiled in June, the proposed act is the result of a series of “listening sessions” on conservation programs held in two dozen locations last year across the country and attended by top Administration officials.
At the urging of NAHB leaders, association members signed up to testify at all 24 sessions, offering comments with two themes in common: existing regulations must be clarified and they must be based on science, not sentiment.
Among the changes advocated by NAHB representatives:
- ESA reform. Clear science and good-quality data — not third-party petitions — should be a prerequisite for listing a species as endangered, NAHB argued. The association also seeks firm limits on how and when the government can designate critical habitat and consideration of the economic impact of each decision.
- Stormwater permitting improvements. "We must insist on a storm water program that yields superior environmental performance while eliminating the current disjointed enforcement and permitting process," NAHB Executive Vice President Jerry Howard told state and local association leaders last summer.
According to the Department of the Interior, the proposed legislation addresses “bureaucratic red tape that has kept federal agencies from working closely with one another and even private citizens from trying to undertake conservation efforts on their own land.”
The proposal calls for clarifying which department has jurisdiction, providing additional Interior Department authority for funding conservation grants programs and modifying the tax code “so department grants for conservation are not treated as income” and the conservation agencies can work more closely together, the agency said in its press release.
One benefit of the new bill is language codifying conservation banks, for which the agency released guidance four years ago. These banks allow landowners who restore and protect habitat for endangered species to sell conservation credits to developers or others who seek to build on or otherwise modify occupied habitat for that species. “This program shows a great deal of promise,” said NAHB Environmental Policy Analyst Diane Keefe.
However, regulatory clarity remains a problem, Keefe said. “For example, there is no clear guidance on the design and approval of Habitat Conservation Plans, critical habitat designation and the definition of adverse modification. The department needs to address the underlying regulatory issues before cooperative conservation can work.”
For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.