Environmental Review Toolkit
Accelerating Project Delivery

Successes in Stewardship
Monthly Newsletter
December 2001

Mitigating Today to Protect for Tomorrow: Prairie Protection
and ESA Consultation Streamlining in Colorado

Photo: Colorado Shortgrass Prairie (photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)
Colorado Shortgrass Prairie
(photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

Overview of Success

Only 40% of Colorado's prairie remains, and much of that is degraded from fragmentation and overuse. Many native species are in danger of being listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). To protect the prairie ecosystem and declining species while streamlining ESA Section 7 consultation, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado DNR Division of Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in April 2001. Over the next few years, CDOT will preserve and its partners will manage 15,000-30,000 acres of prairie in the eastern third of the state that provide habitat for approximately 25 species, including black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, box turtles, and mountain plovers. The MOA is unique for its inclusion of a conservation organization, its 20-year mitigation plan, its protection of habitat as opposed to an individual species, and its mitigation of future impacts at today's prices.

Along with protecting the environment, the MOA will lower costs, avoid project delays, and streamline the ESA Section 7 consultation process. Covering nearly 90,000 acres of CDOT right-of-way, the MOA outlines programmatic clearance processes for activities on the existing road network for the next 20 years. The MOA will avoid rising land costs by purchasing mitigation land now and streamline the regulatory compliance process under Section 7 of the ESA in order to reduce the risk of delay on CDOT projects.

Planning in Advance

By mitigating against environmental impacts from proposed transportation projects over the next 20 years, Colorado is ensuring predictable project timelines, reduced delays, and lower costs. The MOA covers scheduled maintenance and improvements in CDOT's 20-year plan for 22% of the highway network in Colorado's Eastern Plains. While mitigation is based on estimates of the collective impacts to habitats from proposed transportation projects, mitigation is done at today's prices. Costs are further reduced by avoiding project-by project analysis and mitigation, which take time and resources that could be invested in conservation.

Conservation Banking

In lieu of project-by-project analysis, the MOA calls for an estimate of the collective environmental impacts from proposed transportation projects over the next 20 years. Agencies estimate potential impacts using best available data, GIS mapping, and expert opinion. Conservation is achieved through best practices in design and maintenance — such as buffers around critical species — and through purchase and management of priority habitat. Addressing species' needs on a project-by-project basis can yield scattered and fragmented habitat conservation. By contributing to multi-species recovery in an integrated fashion, Colorado agencies hope to aid the recovery of listed species and reduce the likelihood of other species being listed under the ESA.

Conservation banking also benefits transportation agencies. Since conservation banking is advanced mitigation, agencies meet their ESA Section 7 responsibilities early, streamlining the regulatory process and saving time. CDOT, FHWA, and FWS have widened the scope of analysis and conservation area and overestimated the extent to which agency action could affect species and habitat to compensate for unforeseen impacts and to avoid re-initiation of Section 7 consultation in most cases. (The construction of new alignment, the listing of new species not anticipated by the agreement, or the finding of new information could re-initiate the Section 7 process.)

"The effort is also plowing new ground with resolving regulatory issues involving assurances on advance conservation for candidate and/or declining species should they become listed." Tom Norton, Executive Director of CDOT.

Expanding Partnerships

Under the MOA, participating agencies work with conservation organizations and the agricultural community to manage purchased land in a way that benefits the prairie ecosystem and maintains some private production. With participating groups working together to achieve proactive mitigation and effective habitat monitoring, more acres are mitigated for each acre impacted. In addition, collaborating with conservation organizations and the agricultural community alleviates some of the increasing demands on agency staff and reduces the potential for interagency disagreements that would require negotiation.

Lessons Learned

Colorado's transportation planning process is proactively mitigating for environmental impacts its unique prairie ecosystem. Through advanced planning and coordination with Colorado resource agencies and conservation organizations, mitigation of impacts from future projects will be done at today's prices. As a result, project timelines will be more predictable, time and money will be saved, and the sensitive prairie ecosystem will be protected.

By focusing resources on the conservation of threatened, priority habitats — rather than on the conservation of individual species on a fragmented project-by-project basis — Colorado is protecting the prairie ecosystem and its diverse communities of species. This holistic review of ecosystem impacts streamlines the ESA Section 7 review process and better stewards public resources and the environment.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is partnering with resource agencies and a conservation organization in order to gather the environmental knowledge and monitoring expertise needed to best protect the environment.

Project Summary

In late 1999, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) contacted The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to explore the possibility of a proactive, joint conservation effort on Colorado's Eastern Plains. A portion of the central shortgrass prairie ecosystem, the Plains total over 27 million acres. In early 2000, idea sharing and brainstorming between CDOT, TNC, the Federal Highway Administration, and other Federal and state resource agencies led to the development of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA.)

TNC, participating agencies, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP), and outside experts have identified over 100 declining animal and plant species within the Plains using a three-parameter approach: whether the species was considered likely to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in the next 20 years; whether the species occurs within a zone of impact from CDOT highways; and whether the species could benefit from a conservation/mitigation banking approach. Other species will be included as sites allow.

As next steps, a panel headed by state biologists, TNC, and other scientists will identify priority sites that can serve as large scale conservation or mitigation areas. With approval from FHWA and FWS, CDOT will use state and FHWA funds to purchase property interests in selected sites from willing sellers. Subsequent agreements will be developed detailing the administration, management, and reporting/monitoring of the acquired property. The current MOA can be used as a template in other parts of Colorado.

Contact Information

Edrie Vinson
FHWA , CO Division
555 Zang Street
Suite 250
Lakewood, CO 80228
Phone: 303-969-6730 X378
Fax: (303) 969-6740
Email: vinson.edrie@fhwa.dot.gov

"Successes in Stewardship" is a Federal Highway Administration newsletter highlighting current environmental streamlining practices from around the country.

For more information on environmental streamlining, please visit: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/strmlng/index.asp.

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