Corrina Tapia is a second year MCRS student who has always been drawn to how wildlife and humans interact, and specifically, how to ensure that the survival of one does not mean the loss of the other. With a master’s degree she hopes to work with a non-profit organization to help conserve wildlife populations by learning about how they function within a changing landscape and to help preserve/restore their native habitats.
A Breakdown in Fundamentals: Mitigation Banking and its Impact on Conservation
When we hear the word “conservation,” we rarely think of markets, transactions, or credits. We also don’t associate degradation or loss of viable and healthy habitat with “conservation.” Instead, when what comes to mind with this word might be images of idyllic landscapes, secretive carnivores like mountain lions, and other grand images of protected wildlife and nature. The protection of these landscapes and wildlife is something that is in the hearts of many people, and often “conservation” invokes not just one of these images but a combination of many and of various communities of peoples dedicated to their protection.
The field of conservation can be put at risk when transactions of nature begin to overshadow our ideas of conservation and protection. As human populations continue to consume limited resources and develop lands, threats arise or gain in intensity. As the conservation movement has advanced, it has addressed the continuous development and human use of resources by mixing conservation tools with mitigation tools. This mix is most clearly seen in the form of mitigation banking. Mitigation banks are a tool to mitigate impacts from development. These banks function under the premise that they will protect an area and its resources (wetlands or threatened species) by selling credits (that are based on those resources) to developers that plan to impact those same resources elsewhere (CDFW 2019; USFWS 2018; Hough and Robertson 2009; Mann and Absher 2014).
Mitigation banks, therefore, represent conservation in a way that many critiques say commodifies nature (Boisvert 2015). Proponents of banks hold that these tools are essential for continued development and protection of natural resources. As this mitigation/conservation tool gains popularity in the West, it is essential to put these tools under the microscope. How are banks faring since their establishment? Who is involved? Are these tools accomplishing conservation goals? To answer these questions, I first dived into the history behind the policies that created mitigation banks. I then reached out to individuals that have knowledge of or work with established mitigation banks in San Bernardino, Riverside, and Los Angeles Counties to interview them.
Before going into the outcome of these interviews, it is important to first look at that history. How did mitigation banks become the popular tool that they are today? And that starts with three butterflies in San Francisco and a sand-dune dwelling lizard in the Coachella Valley.
Three Butterflies and a Lizard
The policies most instrumental to mitigation banks as they stand today arose from two habitat conservation plans (HCPs) in the 1980s: the San Bruno Mountains HCP developed to protect the Mission Blue, San Bruno Elfin, and Callippe silverspot butterflies and the Coachella Valley HCP developed to protect the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard. These two plans happened on opposite ends of California, San Francisco and Coachella, but they happened for similar reasons. These species were being threatened by human impacts such as non-native plant species, which threatened the native flora necessary for the butterflies’ habitat, and human development, which threatened the delicate sand dune habitats of the lizard.
Both HCPs brought about a policy regime that shifted how conservation was viewed within the landscape of continued human development and human impacts. The concept of mitigation was brought about, and it was seen as a way to deal with conservation problems while still allowing development to continue. These two HCPs were instrumental in the current policies that allowed mitigation banking to become the popular tool that it is today.
The Players and the Issue
There are some common players involved in mitigation banks. They are not only state and federal agencies but also individuals from academics, from consulting agencies, and others. They all play a role in mitigation banks, either their establishment or their success. With any tool in which there are many players, who have different expectations and interpretations of the tool, complexity can arise. The success of any conservation or mitigation tool, hinges on the cooperation among these different entities, and it can become threatened when basic interpretations of the tool are called into question.
To truly understand how these mitigation banks function and their effectiveness, I interviewed individuals involved in mitigation banks or individuals with knowledge of them. Mitigation banks are gaining steam in the West, and Southern California, with its limited space and plethora of unique habitats and species, was a prime area of focus. I looked to six banks (Cajon Creek, Soquel Canyon, Delhi Sands Flower Loving Fly, Riverpark, Santa Ana River, and Petersen Ranch) and asked: How do individuals interpret mitigation banking in the context of conservation? How do they characterize banking (i.e., what are the common themes or categories of their responses)? Lastly, out of other mitigation and conservation tools, where do they place mitigation banks with respect to their level of effectiveness and management (McAfee 2012; Wilhere 2001)?
There are many ethical and conservation concerns over mitigation banking. Understanding how individuals interpret this tool was not only a way to look at their effectiveness but a way to get at the heart of banking. What purpose do these banks serve in the world of conservation? The individuals that participated in this study all had different perspectives on mitigation banks. These different perspectives all contribute in some way to the functioning of banking as a tool, and it is vital to recognize those differences. If we can recognize these differences, then positive steps can be made to make these tools stronger for conservation and for the protection of the precious resources of this planet.
Boisvert, V. 2015. Conservation banking mechanisms and the economization of nature: an institutional analysis. Ecosystem Services 1-9.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). 2019. Conservation and Mitigation Banking. Accessed on: 10 November 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Planning/Banking.
Hough, P. and Robertson, M. 2009. Mitigation under section 404 of the Clean Water Act: where it comes from, what it means. Wetlands Ecology Management 17: 15-33.
Mann, C. and Absher, J.D. 2014. Adjusting policy to institutional, cultural and biophysical context conditions: the case of conservation banking in California. Land Use Policy 36: 73-82.
McAfee, K. 2012. The contradictory logic of global ecosystem services markets. Development and Change 43(1): 105-131.
US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2018. For landowners | conservation banking. Accessed on: 10 November 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/landowners/conservation-banking.html.
Wilhere, G.F. 2001. Adaptive management in habitat conservation plans. Conservation Biology 16(1):20-29.