The Benefit of Working with Private Owners: The Success of Habitat Conservation Plans


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There is a constant struggle between private land owners and conservationist when it comes to protecting land. The conflict arises from a mixture of need to develop land, cost of conservation, and worries by both private owners and government agencies about their respective best interests. Although many efforts have been made to work with private land owners, the effectiveness of these projects has not been assessed until recently. Christian Langpap and Joe Kerkvliet from Oregon University explore the effectiveness of habitat conservation plans, or HCPs, in their article published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

Starting in the early 1980’s, habitat conservation plans were implemented when dealing with private areas of land. This arose as a response to the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. According to Langpap and Kervliet, this act created major controversy with private land owners because it prevented any action which would potentially threaten an endangered species or its habitat. As a result, a great deal of private land could not be developed as the owners would have liked and land was not being utilized to its full economic capabilities. Due to this, many private owners tried to disobey the act or would not report fully about the contents of their land in order to try and avoid conflicts with the new law. This resulted in a lack of protection for many species and less cooperation between the government agencies and the private sector. To try and encourage the private land owners to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it was amended. Starting in 1982, the government would grant an incidental take permit after a landowner established a habitat conservation plan and met the minimum requirements for a habitat conservation plan. This meant that if the land owner put a plan into place that would protect the endangered species on the land and encourage the protection of the species habitat, they were allowed to undertake lawful activities which may disturb the endangered species.  This allowed the private owners more freedom to do with land as they pleased and ensured the government that endangered species were still being protected. This plan met with limited success originally however and only several habitat conservation plans were established before 1994.

It was not until President Clinton developed a new policy in 1994 that habitat conservation plans became more wide spread throughout privately owned sections of land. The new policy, dubbed the “no surprises” rule meant that once a land owner created a HCP, they would not have to make any changes to it even if environmental changes occurred. This means that if a HCP was put into effect and a species which was not endangered lived on the land during its creation, if this species then became endangered the land owner would not have to make any changes to the already established HCP. This made private land owners less nervous about making deals with the government and allowed them more permanent freedoms.

Although it seems apparent that habitat conservation plans would increase the survivability of endangered species, their impacts had not been studied in detail before Langpap and Kerkvliet. Their results show that from 1990 to 2004 there have been improvements for endangered species on land with HCPs that include protection and recovery of species. The results display that the National Marine and Fisheries Service as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could benefit from encouraging more private owners to create habitat conservation plans. Since the process of creating HCPs is lengthy and the cost of establishing them is large it would be in the best interest of protection agencies to encourage or help create HCPs in order to expedite the process and reduce its costs.  The research also indicates implications for future research and use of this research. The policy of HCPs or a policy similar to it could be utilized for not only private land but also for government owned land and may be important for establishing general land development rules. With the process of establishing HCPs becoming more refined, private land owners and conservation agencies will eventually be able to work toward the same goals instead of working for their own separate interests.

Journal Reference

Langpap, Christian, and Joe Kerkvliet. “Endangered Species Conservation on Private Land: Assessing the Effectiveness of Habitat Conservation Plans.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 64.1 (2012): 1-15. July 2012. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.

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