Habitat Conservation Plans

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Habitat conservation plans

Protection of the earth's flora and fauna , the myriad of plants and animals that inhabit our planet, is totally dependent upon preserving their habitats. This is because a habitat , or natural environment for a specific variety of plant or animal, provides everything necessary for sustaining life for that species . Habitat conservation is part of a larger picture involving interdependency between all living things. Human life has been sustained since its dawning through the utilization of both plants and animals for food, clothing, shelter and medicines. It follows then that the destruction of any specie's environment, which will result in the eventual destruction of the species itself, adversely affects us all.

Habitat destruction occurs for a number of reasons. Human industry has usually resulted in pollution that has often destroyed the balance of natural elements in soil , water and air that are necessary to life. The need for forest products such as lumber has threatened woodlands in more ways than one. A lumbering practice called clear-cutting , in addition to over-harvesting a forest, leaves behind barren ground that results in erosion and threatens species dependent on the vegetation that grows on the forest floor. This wearing away of soil often results in negative changes to nearby streams and thus the water supply to multitudes of living things. The introduction of non-native species into an area can also threaten a habitat, as plants and animals with no natural enemies may thrive abnormally. This in turn will throw off the delicate balance and natural biological controls on population growth that each environment provides for its inhabitants.

As the understanding of these facts became more widespread, the demand for habitat conservation throughout the world increased. In the United States, in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect both at risk species and their environments. In order to control activities by private and non-federal government landowners that might disturb habitats, the Act included a section outlining Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs).

These HCPs were not implemented without a good deal of controversy. Some environmentalists were critical of the plans, believing that they failed to actually preserve the habitats and species they were designed to protect. Both conservationists and landowners and industrialists argued that these HCPs' were based upon faulty science and invalid and insufficient data. Impartial reviews did indicate that there were flaws. One cited weakness was that a species could theoretically be added to the endangered list but have no modification made in the plan to protect that species' living-space.

It is clearly a measure of this controversy that in the law's first twenty years, only fourteen such plans were developed and approved nationwide. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, the federal government revised policies to encourage more numerous and more effective HCP applications. A more responsive to change "No surprises" policy helped encourage participation in habitat conservation plans.

This policy recognizes that natural resources change and environments require continual monitoring and alterations in plans, that those trying to balance environments can do so with adaptive management . Such alterations encouraged participation in HCPs, and by 1997, more than 200 plans covering nine million acres of land had been approved. As of April of 2002, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service notes that nearly double that number, 379 plans covering nearly 30 million acres and protecting more than 200 endangered and threatened species have now been approved.

One positive example of the possibilities created by such plans is the work of the Plum Creek Timber Company, a nationwide timberland company whose corporate offices are located in Seattle, Washington. Self-described as "the second largest private timberland owner in the United States, with 7.8 million acres located in the northwestern, southern and northeastern regions of the country", the company lists many initiatives it has undertaken to preserve the environments under its charge. In the early 1990's, Plum Creek Timber Company developed a plan to provide a ladder-like framework in Coquille River tributaries in Oregon to aid fish in reaching upper areas blocked for many years by a culvert. Spawning surveys completed the next year showed that coho salmon and steelhead trout, for the first time in forty years, were present above the culvert.

HCPs were created to focus attention on the problem of declining wildlife on land not owned and protected by the federal government and to attempt to maintain the biodiversity so necessary for all life. This goal would ideally assure that land is developed in such a way that it serves both the needs of the landowner and of threatened wildlife. However, in reality, it is not always possible to achieve such a goal. Often the more appropriate aim, if habitat conservation is to be successful, will be total protection of a wildlife environment even at the price of banning all development.

[Joan M. Schonbeck ]



Gilbert Oliver L., and Penny Anderson. Habitat Creation and Repair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Walters, C. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. New York: Mac-Millan, 1986.


Mann, C., and M. Plummer. "Qualified Thumbs Up for Habitat Plan Science." Science 278, no. 5346 (December 19, 1997): 2052.


Fish and Wildlife Reference Service, 54300 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 110, Bethesda, MD USA 20814 (301) 492-6403, Toll Free: (800) 582-3421, Email: [email protected], <http://www.lib.iastate.edu/collections/db/usfwrs.html>

National Wildlife Federation, 111000 Wildlife Center Drive, Reston, VA USA 20190 (703)438-6000, Toll Free: (800) 822-9919, Email: [email protected], <http://www.nwf.org>