Environmental Review Toolkit
Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

FHWA Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives

Criteria for Selection

When developing ecosystem and habitat conservation initiatives or identifying existing practices, the following criteria should be addressed:

  1. An exemplary ecosystem initiative helps sustain or restore natural systems and their functions and values.

    Ecosystems are interconnected communities of living things, including humans, and the physical environment within which they interact. Healthy and well-functioning ecosystems are vital to the protection of our diverse biological resources, and to sustaining the economies and communities that rely on their products and benefits. Some of the key processes essential to naturally functioning ecosystems include water flow (hydrology), storage and cycling of nutrients, minerals, and energy, and biological community dynamics (disturbance, competition, and succession). Without the maintenance of these processes, ecosystems are unable to sustain stable, productive, biological communities; therefore, ecosystem and habitat conservation projects must identify, protect, and restore key processes in order to achieve ecosystem goals.

  2. An exemplary ecosystem initiative is developed within a landscape context.

    In many cases, key ecosystem processes cannot be fully integrated or replaced at one location, which is why ecosystem initiatives should be developed within a landscape context. Traditional mitigation for transportation impacts tends to be site specific, with little consideration of how the project fits into the context of the surrounding ecosystem. Under the ecosystem approach, the frame of reference and project objectives are much broader and are applied within a defined geographic framework such as an ecoregion, watershed, species range, or transportation planning area. Exemplary ecosystem initiatives should address landscape-scale resource needs (e.g., habitat fragmentation, historic wetland losses) that extend beyond the immediate vicinity of a given project and strive to support sustainable and natural ecosystem conditions, not simply accommodate short-term needs or demands. The geographic scope should be large enough to generate regional, ecological benefits that compensate for impacts resulting from a single project or the cumulative impacts of multiple actions.

  3. An exemplary ecosystem initiative uses partnering and collaborative approaches to advance common goals.

    The environmental process requires multi-disciplinary involvement and input from review/permitting agencies that have jurisdiction over the resources that may be impacted as a result of transportation decisions. These agencies need to be engaged during planning and development to define successes and solutions to environmental issues. Many States and review/permitting agencies have recognized that watershed and ecosystem approaches to enhancement, restoration, and preservation of aquatic and upland ecosystems can expedite the environmental review process while maximizing benefit to the environment.

    Partnering and collaborative approaches are essential when developing ecosystem and habitat conservation initiatives. Each of the selection criteria depends, to some degree, on successful partnering and collaboration with review/permitting agencies and other stakeholders. Partners should work together to determine resource needs at a landscape scale and identify ways in which all parties can contribute to and benefit from achieving ecosystem objectives. Mitigation and enhancement activities can then be targeted to help advance regional conservation goals. In this way, FHWA shares with its' partners in the development of the initiative, gains their early buy-in, and helps ensure success.

  4. An exemplary ecosystem initiative uses the best available science in ecosystem and habitat conservation.

    The best available science is a critical element in the development of ecosystem initiatives and should be fully integrated into the decision-making process. The ecosystem approach requires scientific understanding and information concerning the interaction of physical, chemical, and biological processes that sustain ecosystem composition, structure, and function. Aspects of using the best available science include application of scientifically credible methods, monitoring, and analysis procedures as well as cutting edge approaches and/or technologies (e.g., habitat restoration techniques, habitat connectivity analysis, and GIS applications). Best available science and/or technology should be used to determine key project elements such as project goals (e.g., protect and enhance habitat connectivity, prevent habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, avoid wildlife mortality, enhance ecosystem productivity, diversity, and stability), project location(s), key ecosystem processes, appropriate parameters to characterize baseline conditions and measure project effectiveness, project sustainability, and management and monitoring needs.

    Due to the complexity of natural systems, there is often uncertainty about how ecosystems function and what the effect of management actions may be. Furthermore, data is often sparse, and it may not be possible or feasible to gather enough data upfront to eliminate this uncertainty. Adaptive management is a concept that encourages decision makers to move forward with available information and learn from the results of their choices. The adaptive management approach uses an iterative process of acting, learning, and leveraging what is learned, rather than just investing in data gathering. Project sponsors may want to consider the use of adaptive management principles when developing an exemplary ecosystem initiative.

  5. An exemplary ecosystem initiative provides clear examples of innovative environmental solutions by transportation agencies and achieves high standards in the environmental process.

    The scope of the ecosystem initiative should be clear with respect to:

    • the resources in question and the need for innovative solutions to preserve and enhance them;
    • the overall goals, both from an ecosystem perspective and a highway perspective, that were met by this solution; and
    • the methodology used to bring about the solution (e.g., effective use of stakeholder involvement, innovative partnerships, and funding mechanisms).

    Exemplary ecosystem initiatives should clearly demonstrate how an ecosystem approach (e.g., watershed-based mitigation) will generate benefits (e.g., greater predictability in transportation project timelines, ability to address multiple project impacts in a comprehensive manner, more effective habitat conservation, and elimination of temporal loss of wetland and riparian areas).

  6. An exemplary ecosystem initiative achieves high quality results.

    The initiative should have well-defined (quantifiable) goals and a management system (e.g., monitoring and/or management plan) in place to provide systematic review and evaluation throughout the implementation and operation phases. If appropriate, the initiative should include a mechanism for long-term management or protection of the project area(s).

  7. An exemplary ecosystem initiative is recognized by environmental interests as being particularly valuable or noteworthy.

    Exemplary initiatives should be able to demonstrate wide support by environmental agencies and public interest groups. This may be evidenced by their involvement in the project or by statements of support. The FHWA may choose to involve environmental agencies in the review of initiatives to be identified as exemplary and seek endorsement of the initiatives as particularly valuable or noteworthy.

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