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Environmental Review Toolkit

Eco-Logical: An Ecosystem Approach to
Developing Infrastructure Projects

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Executive Summary

Infrastructure consists of the basic facilities—such as transportation and communications systems, utilities, and public institutions—needed for the functioning of a community or society. Sometimes the development of these facilities can negatively impact habitat and ecosystems. Techniques have been developed to better avoid, minimize, and mitigate these impacts, as well as the impacts of past infrastructure projects. However, the avoidance, minimization, and mitigation efforts used may not always provide the greatest environmental benefit, or may do very little to promote ecosystem sustainability. This concern, along with a 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (see Appendix A) to foster the ecosystem approach and the Enlibra Principles, mobilized an interagency Steering Team to collaborate over a three-year period to write Eco-Logical: An Ecosystem Approach to Developing Infrastructure Projects.

The Executive Order for Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews (EO13274) and the Work Group on Integrated Planning established under it advance this effort by ensuring that agencies work to integrate planning. Similarly, the Executive Order for the Facilitation of Cooperative Conservation (EO 13352) reinforces Eco-Logical by ensuring that agencies of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency implement laws relating to the environment and natural resources in a manner that promotes cooperative conservation, with an emphasis on appropriate inclusion of local participation in Federal decisionmaking, in accordance with respective agency missions, policies, and regulations.

The Steering Team began with a shared vision of an enhanced and sustainable natural environment, combined with the view that necessary infrastructure can be developed in ways that are more sensitive to terrestrial and aquatic habitats. In the Steering Team's view, it is possible to significantly contribute to the restoration and recovery of declining ecosystems and the species that depend on them, while cost-effectively developing the facilities, services, forest products, and recreation opportunities needed for safety, social well being, and economic development. To help do so, Eco-Logical encourages Federal, State, tribal, and local partners involved in infrastructure planning, design, review, and construction to use flexibility in regulatory processes. Specifically, Eco-Logical puts forth the conceptual groundwork for integrating plans across agency boundaries, and endorses ecosystem-based mitigation—an innovative method of mitigating infrastructure impacts that cannot be avoided.

The following goals drive the Steering Team's pursuit of improved ways to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts:

  • Conservation - Protection of larger scale, multi-resource ecosystems;
  • Connectivity - Reduced habitat fragmentation;
  • Predictability - Knowledge that commitments made by all agencies will be honored, i.e., that the planning and conservation agreements, results, and outcomes will occur as negotiated; and
  • Transparency - Better public and stakeholder involvement at all key stages in order to establish credibility, build trust, and streamline infrastructure planning and development.

These goals all support an ecosystem approach to infrastructure development. An ecosystem approach is a process for the comprehensive management of land, water, and biotic and abiotic resources that equitably promotes conservation and sustainable use. The approach shifts the Federal government's traditional focus from individual agency jurisdiction to the actions of multiple agencies within larger ecosystems. It finds ways to increase voluntary collaboration with State, tribal, and local governments, and to involve other landowners, stakeholders, interested organizations, and the public.

a graphic of the ecosystem approach incorporating integrated planning, mitigation operations, and performance measurement

As a means to implement an ecosystem approach, Eco-Logical introduces ecosystem-based mitigation - the process of restoring, creating, enhancing, and preserving habitat and other ecosystem features in conjunction with or in advance of projects in areas where environmental needs and the potential environmental contributions have been determined to be greatest. Ecosystem-based mitigation extends existing compensatory mitigation options by offering a way to evaluate alternatives for off-site mitigation and/or out-of-kind mitigation in the ecologically most important areas as defined by interagency partners and the public. It is a potentially enhanced approach to crediting mitigation that builds on existing approaches. Integrating this new concept with lessons learned from previous experience can allow agencies to capitalize on opportunities for substantial habitat connectivity and wildlife conservation while developing needed infrastructure.

In addition, Eco-Logical recommends an eight-step, nonprescriptive process that can serve as a starting point from which ecosystem-based mitigation decisions can be considered and made. The process, integrated planning, is defined as a course of action that agencies and partners take to combine planning efforts, understand where programmed work will interact, and define ecological resources of highest concern.

No agency acting on its own can effectively implement an ecosystem approach to infrastructure development. Cooperation is necessary to view ecosystems from a range of perspectives and to address a region's highest-priority ecological needs; and since these needs are dynamic and often not fully understood, partners also need to agree on adaptive performance measures to ensure that desired benefits are occurring. By working together, streamlined project development and sound stewardship of natural resources—which are impacted by a variety of competing interests—are achievable outcomes.

The Eco-Logical authors include representatives from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USDA FS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, and several State Departments of Transportation (DOT), including North Carolina DOT, Vermont Agency of Transportation, and Washington DOT.

Eco-Logical: Important Definitions

These definitions are intended to help set the context for readers of Eco-Logical. More definitions are provided in the Glossary.

Purpose: To help guide agencies and partners to work proactively in developing and implementing an ecosystem approach for mitigating the effects of infrastructure projects—the public works that provide the basic facilities and services on which communities depend.

Audience: Federal, State, tribal, and local partners involved in infrastructure planning, design, review, and construction.

Extensions: Eco-Logical should help lead to the next logical steps in compensatory mitigation—finding and taking vanishing opportunities to conserve and improve important ecosystems. Although the Steering Team's discussions primarily focused on transportation, the concepts applied in the Guide can be applied to other types of infrastructure.

Ecosystem: An interconnected community of living things, including humans, and the physical environment in which they interact.

Ecosystem Approach: A method for sustaining or restoring ecological systems and their functions and values. It is goal driven, and it is based on a collaboratively developed vision of desired future conditions that integrates ecological, economic, and social factors. It is applied within a geographic framework defined primarily by ecological boundaries.

Infrastructure: The basic facilities-such as transportation and communications systems, utilities, and public institutions-needed for the functioning of a community or society.

Wildlife and Habitat: For the purposes of the Guide, the term "wildlife" is meant to be inclusive of terrestrial and aquatic animals and invertebrates; "habitatquot; refers to the ecosystems, plants, and interactions that support wildlife.

Infrastructure: The basic facilities, such as transportation and communications systems, utilities, and public institutions, needed for the functioning of a community or society.

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