California’s new planning tool could transform the way public agencies approach voluntary investments in environmental conservation.
Under the Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (‘RCIS’) Program, state and local leaders can now readily identify compensatory mitigation in a streamlined process.
The program holds impressive potential for county parks and open space agencies, and state-chartered conservancies whose mission is to conserve populations of rare species, habitats, and natural resources. Public infrastructure agencies like the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), water agencies, and city and county public works will also benefit from this new tool.
How does it work?
Unlocking efficiency in mitigation
What is a Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS)?
An RCIS is a non-regulatory, voluntary planning document that establishes a region’s conservation goals and the tactics to achieve them. It does not create or modify regulatory requirements or standards, regulate land use, or affect the existing land use authority of a public agency.
Public agencies across California, from the north coast redwoods to the southern deserts, have sought more efficient ways to approach infrastructure projects: flood control, renewable energy, transportation, water supply management, water delivery, and urban development.
To address a given region’s environmental conservation challenges and opportunities in these projects, California legislators passed the RCIS program in 2017 as a more nimble, flexible conservation planning solution.
An RCIS helps expedite public infrastructure projects by facilitating regional advance mitigation planning: a process in which the environmental mitigation for impacts from multiple projects is pooled and conducted in advance, resulting in larger conservation projects that have greater benefits and greater economies of scale, while expediting delivery of public infrastructure projects such as flood protection or transportation projects and minimizing impacts on agriculture and other land uses.
Once the California Department of Fish and Wildlife approves an RCIS, anyone can establish advance mitigation and create mitigation credits for habitat enhancement actions and other non-traditional conservation measures. Other organizations have considered RCISs as a mechanism to support carbon offset programs, siting of mitigation banks, and sustainable management of working lands and groundwater basins.
The Future of RCIS
For the first time, the program has created the opportunity for habitat enhancement actions that improve the quality of wildlife habitat, or to address risks or stressors to wildlife. These actions include measures to help the species most sensitive and threatened by climate change by protecting, enhancing and managing the landscape to enable those species to persist where climate variability is expected to be more stable, and to enable adaptation to new environmental conditions, including shifting of the species’ occupied range.
Public and private organizations are participating in the development of these plans – including state and federal regulatory agencies, the California State Coastal Conservancy, local governments, open space districts, and environmental organizations. Compared to other regional conservation planning processes (i.e. Natural Community Conservation Plans) that routinely take many years to complete, an RCIS can be developed within a relatively short timeframe (one to two years).
In January 2018, the CDFW released the Santa Clara RCIS for public review. And in March 2018, the CDFW released the Yolo RCIS for public review. ICF led the development of both documents. There are currently six active RCISs in California, from Santa Clara and San Benito to Los Angeles and the Mid-Sacramento Valley; five are led by ICF. As more stakeholders become aware of the RCIS framework, the state and its species will become more resilient to the changing climate.