Conservation Planning

Guide to Regional Conservation Planning in California
Key benefits of regional conservation planning
Legal basis for regional conservation planning: HCPs and NCCPs
Regional conservation planning spreading across California
Relationships to wetlands conservation and permitting
Controversial nature of regional conservation planning
Six steps for effective regional conservation planning
Articles in our periodical Linkages
Links to web sites and on-line reports
Books and articles

Guide to Regional Conservation Planning in California

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This Guide explains the nature and purposes of regional conservation planning in California. Local jurisdictions are preparing these plans at the county and sub-county scale to meet provisions of the federal and California Endangered Species Acts and the California Natural Community Conservation Planning Act.

Part I is a short introduction. Part II provides a very brief picture of California’s biological wealth and outlines some scientific issues relevant to conservation of species and habitat. Part III explains the federal and state legal and regulatory requirements. Part IV examines the process of preparing a regional conservation plan. Part V explores topics that are common to the various regional conservation plans.

If you would like to obtain a CD version with additional items as appendices, contact IEH (

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The Key Benefits of Regional Conservation Planning

California is a global hot-spot of endangered biodiversity, with hundreds of plant and animal species and many types of wildlife habitat at risk. Continuing rapid growth at the fringes of metropolitan regions results in repeated conflict between the conservation of nature and proposed developments. A variety of development activities, such as construction of housing subdivisions and shopping malls and the extension of infrastructure, destroys high value wildlife habitat and individuals of rare or imperiled animal and plant species. Some ongoing maintenance activities for roads, flood control levees and other structures also impact habitat and species.

Regional-scale conservation plans, termed Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) and Natural Community Conservation Plans (NCCPs), are often prepared when there are significant conflicts between endangered species and proposed or potential development in a region. A good regional conservation plan sets up a system of large-scale reserves, together with wildlife corridors, that will ensure the long term survival of the covered species, and aid the recovery of listed species. The reserves will also protect ecosystem functions and processes. A permanent system of biological monitoring and adaptive management allows the inevitable problems and surprises to be addressed.

In the absence of a regional conservation plan, development project proponents negotiate their own arrangements with the wildlife agencies. These tend to result in the conservation of small, fragmented bits of habitat, including fragments surrounded by urban development. The fragments have relatively little biological value and in the long-term will likely lose their rare species.

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Legal Basis for Regional Conservation Planning: HCPs and NCCPs

As regional conservation plans in California address both species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act and species listed under the California Endangered Species act, they require approval and issuance of incidental take permits by both federal and state governments.


Section 10A of the Federal Endangered Species Acts provides the legal basis for Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs). U.S. Code, Title 16 Chapter 35. (Download from U.S. House of Representatives Downloadable U.S. Code web site) The law authorizes issuance of an incidental take permit for one or more covered species upon approval of a Habitat Conservation Plan, providing -

  • take is incidental
  • impacts of take are minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent practicable
  • there is adequate funding to implement the plan
  • taking will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery

There are additional regulatory and policy requirements detailed in the Habitat Conservation Planning Handbook, the Assurances (“No Surprises”) rule (Federal Register Vol 63, pages 8859-8873. February 23 1998) and the Five Point Policy Guidance (Federal Register, Vol 65, pages 35242 -35257, June 1 2000 ). Download these items


Section 2081 of the California Endangered Species Act allows the California Department of Fish and Game to issue incidental take permits (Fish and Game Code, Section 2081)

The new (2002) version of the state’s Natural Community Conservation Plan law (Fish and Game Code, Sections 2800-2835) provides the legal basis for conservation planning at the biological community scale. The law has a set of requirements for the planning process and also requires the California Department of Fish and Game to make a set of substantial biological findings before approving a plan. The Department issues an incidental take permit for covered species upon approval of the Plan

Requirements for the NCCP and the preparation process include:

  • independent scientific input, including recommendation of conservation strategies and goals, reserve design and management principles;
  • public participation throughout plan development;
  • plan based on best available science;
  • meet the biological need of the covered species and aids the recovery of listed species;
  • an adaptive management and monitoring program;
  • a system of landscape or ecosystem scale conservation that protects the ecological integrity of large habitat blocks, ecosystem function, and biological diversity;
  • reserves with linkages (corridors) that support sustainable populations of the species covered by the plan and conservation of a variety of environmental gradients.

Local jurisdictions prepare a regional conservation plan and submit it to the federal and state agencies for approval and issuance of incidental take permits. Most current plans are NCCP/HCPs (NCCP for the state permit and HCP for the federal permit). Some regional conservation plans are just multi-species HCPs, seeking a 2081 permit from Fish and Game to provide the state coverage.

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Regional Conservation Planning Spreading Across California

Conservation planning for multiple species and habitat types is taking place in more and more California counties. Local jurisdictions develop multi-species, multi-habitat conservation plans according to provisions in federal and state laws. The plans provide for permanent conservation of species listed under federal and state endangered species acts, other at risk species, and the different types of natural communities. Federal and state wildlife agencies approve the plans and issue incidental take permits that allow development and other activities to result in some take of habitat and/or listed species in return for the permanent conservation measures.

This type of conservation planning began in San Diego and Orange Counties in the 1990's where coastal sage scrub with many animal and plant species, was disappearing rapidly under a sea of sprawling urban-suburban development. Remaining natural landscapes with coastal sage scrub were becoming more and more fragmented. In 1991 California approved development of voluntary Natural Community Conservation Plans (NCCPs) in this region.. In 1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species, with a special rule that incidental take was allowed when it resulted from activities carried out according to provisions of a NCCP plan. As of early 2004, several regional conservation plans are approved and a number are still under development in south-west California.

Multi-species plans are completed in some other locations, such as metropolitan Bakersfield, San Joaquin County, and the Natomas Basin (portions of Sacramento and Sutter Counties). A growing number of local jurisdictions in central and northern California are developing county and sub-county scale plans. Most of these are NCCP/HCP plans, a few just HCPs plus use of the state’s 2081 incidental take permit.

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Linking Regional Conservation Plans to Wetlands Conservation and Permitting

The conservation and development-permitting of wetlands is addressed by a different federal law, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Historically the 404 process has been a permitting system for individual development projects, not a conservation planning process. And it is administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with guidance and oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The differences between the 404 system and the HCP system and the involvement of different federal agencies has made it difficult for regional conservation planning to effectively address wetlands and streams.

Two efforts are underway to overcome many of the difficulties. In Southern California the Los Angeles District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing very large area, watershed based, Special Area Management Plans (SAMPs) for portions of Orange, San Diego and Riverside Counties. In southern Orange County, where an NCCP is under development, there are parallel processes for an NCCP, section 404 / SAMP, and a County General Plan amendment.

In northern California a partnership of several county-scale regional conservation planning efforts is working with the Corps of Engineers and with EPA to develop effective regional 404 planning that takes place in parallel with conservation planning (E-mail for current information),

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The Controversial Nature of Regional Conservation Planning

HCPs and NCCPs have been controversial among a variety of interests. Scientific critiques of many early HCPs found serious flaws and questioned their ability to provide the needed biological conservation. Many environmental organizations are skeptical that the plans will work, seeing them as primarily an aid to metropolitan sprawl, and have concerns about a number of issues, especially the assurances rule. Farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations worry about negative impacts on agricultural operations and infringements on property rights. Developers worry about the size of mitigation fees and whether a plan really provides them with certainty.

On the other hand, the mistakes of earlier plans have provided many lessons about what to do and what not to do. The new generation of regional conservation plans now under preparation, with their independent scientific advisors, stakeholder steering committees, public participation and the legal requirements of the new NCCP law, have the potential to overcome many of the past ecological shortcomings, especially if they utilize effective adaptive management. The plans, and how they are implemented, have the ability to address the concerns of the various interests.

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Six Steps for Effective Regional Conservation Planning

  • Involve all stakeholders
  • Base plan on good science
  • Meet needs of different interests
  • Ensure long-term conservation and aid species recovery
  • Include public involvement
  • Provide adequate funding for implementation, including monitoring and adaptive management

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Additional Regional Conservation Planning Information in Linkages

Linkages #14, Spring 2003

Regional Conservation Planning Takes Hold Across California and Other Western State s

Overview article, including the basis of regional conservation planning and what a plan should achieve.

Making Regional Conservation Planning Work - from Stakeholders to Science

Examines stakeholder involvement, the scientific basis of a plan, science advisory panels and coping with biological uncertainty

Adaptive Management, the Future of Habitat Conservation Planning

Explanation of the various types of adaptive management and discussion of its use in regional conservation planning

Linkages #5, Fall 1997

Can we Make Conservation Planning Work in California?

Discussion of the need for regional; conservation planning and needs for developing an effective plan

Perspectives on Conservation Planning

Individuals from the development, agricultural, local government and environmental communities give their perspectives on regional conservation planning.

Natural Community Conservation Planning - a 1997 Interim Report

The status of NCCP development in south-west California and lessons learned to date

Conservation Banks : Regional Planning’s Newest Tool

The nature and promise of conservation banking

Review: Science and Conservation Planning

Review of The Science of Conservation Planning : habitat Conservation under the Endangered Species Act by Reed Noss et al (1997)

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Links to Useful Web Sites and on-line Reports

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Access to various USFWS material and articles in the Endangered Species Bulletin.

California Department of Fish and Game, Conservation Planning. This web site provides access to information on NCCPs and HCPs, including a variety of down-loadable reports.

Adaptive Management Practitioners' Network
This web site provides a variety of very useful materials on adaptive management.

Regional Conservation Planning - California Native Plant Society Includes access to CNPS’s 1999 HCP-NCCP Handbook.

Frayed Safety Nets: Conservation Planning Under the Endangered Species Act. (2001) Hood, LC (1998 Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, DC. Review of the status of regional conservation planning in 1997, with an examination of key issues. Includes recommendations.

The Future of Habitat Conservation? The NCCP Experience in Southern California. (2001) Pollak, D. California Research Bureau, California State Library, Sacramento, CA. Detailed examination of the NCCP program in southwest California.

Using Science in Habitat Conservation Plans. (1998) Kareiva P National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and American Institute of Biological Sciences. Detailed analysis of 43 HCPs nationwide (and survey of many more) plus recommendations. Study found many problems with these early HCPs.

Leap of Faith: Southern California’s Experiment in Natural Community Conservation Planning. (1997) Jasny, M. Natural Resources Defense Council. Critical analysis of NCCP development.

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Books and articles

The Science of Conservation Planning : Habitat Conservation under the Endangered Species Act. (1997) Noss R et. al. Island Press

Habitat Conservation Planning : Endangered Species and Urban Growth. (1994) Beatley T University of Texas Press. Examines the development and design of 10 early HCPs, including stakeholder issues

When a Habitat is not a Home. (1997) Kaiser J Science. 276:1636-7.
Review of conservation biologists’ criticisms of conservation planning.

Habitat Conservation Plans: Compromise or Capitulation? (1998) Luoma JR Audubon 100(1):36-44.

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