Culvert for habitat connectivity

Increasingly, since the California Wildlife Conservation Law of 1947 (Section 1300-1301), the state has been acquiring land and facilities for the purpose of preserving, protecting and restoring wildlife and providing suitable recreation and use of fish and game resources for the people of the state of California.

“The preservation, protection and restoration of wildlife within the State is an inseparable part of providing adequate recreation for our people in the interest of public welfare; and it is the policy of the State to acquire and restore to the highest possible level, and maintain in a state of high productivity, those areas that can be most successfully used to sustain wildlife and which will provide adequate and suitable recreation. To carry out these purposes, a single and coordinated program for the acquisition of lands and facilities suitable for recreational purposes, and adaptable for conservation, propagation, and utilization of the fish and game resources of the State, is established.”

Furthermore, in the Fish and Game Code, Section 1375,

“The board may act either independently or may cooperate with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior, or any other federal agency in determining any of the questions referred to in this chapter, or in the acquisition and construction of any of the projects mentioned in this chapter.”

The ratio of private to public land ownership crossed an important threshold in 1991when new data from the US Census Bureau revealed that 52.1% of the land in California was now owned by state or federal government entities. Today, land acquisition by transfer of private property to the state, federal government or non-governmental conservation groups and trusts continues to be a main focus with one added dimension–Connectivity. With the state’s emphasis on smart growth, sustainable development, and wildlife biodiversity strategies, connectivity has been identified as a key catalyst for new land acquisitions.

In February 2007, The Western Governors’ Association (WGA) passed resolution 07-01, which allowed for the protection of wildlife migration corridors and crucial wildlife habitat. This policy resolution prompted “Western states, in partnership with important stakeholders, to identify key wildlife corridors and crucial wildlife habitats in the West and make recommendations on needed policy options and tools for preserving those landscapes.”

In 2007, the California legislature responded to the WGA and passed SB 85 which required the Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) to develop a vegetation mapping standard so that it could report on existing wildlife corridors in the state. In 2008, the CA Assembly passed their own bill, AB 2785, requiring the CDFG to also map essential wildlife corridors and habitat linkages. Using the maps’ assessments and a “missing linkages” report from 2001, the state of California created a state wildlife action plan that would establish habitat sustainability and coordinate all future state transportation plans including California Transportation Plan 2035 and all Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs).  Later, SB 375 (Sustainable Communities Strategy), Blueprint Planning, Climate Mitigation Planning (CMAP), and Community Outreach were put in place to advance biodiversity precautionary principles. [Source]

In order for the Department of Fish and Game to meet these policy demands, which are looking to “acquire, regulate, or influence wildlife habitat,” the agency is using the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) to handle land acquisition transactions. DFG is also using conservation and mitigation banks, CMAP, and existing natural community conservation plans and habitat conservation plans to regulate and influence land use.

To conduct their assessment and establish a state wildlife action plan, the DFG along with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) assembled a team of collaborators and stakeholders. Some of these agencies included DOI, DOT, EPA, BLM, DOD, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, US Forest Service, California State Parks, California Regional Planning Groups (SANDAG, ABAG, SCAG, etc), and various nature conservancy groups.

Their collective goal was to create “model inputs” for habitat sustainability that would ascertain “indices of species rarity, critical habitat for listed species, wetlands, conservation status of wetlands, impervious surfaces, and urban and agricultural land.” Using an Ecological Condition Index (ECI), “wildlands blocks or areas” (NBLs) were identified and grouped in 6,000 acre sections. ECI rules were also modified to include “Conservation Status Gap 1 & 2 and High Biological Value (HBV)” inputs. Ultimately, 850 NLBs of 2,000 to 3.7 million acres were designated as targeted areas for mitigation, conservation and acquisition.

You can view the CDFG’s power point presentation here.

Additionally, the collaborators required corridors or “sticks” that connect the “blocks.” Using various rules and parameters, they attempted to connect “blocks” to the center of each area, reaching a common terminus. Finally, 192 corridors were identified linking all 850 blocks across the state, plus 552 road mitigation sticks and 31 interstate sticks. (See map.)

Sticks for Essential Connectivity Areas

To support this action plan, all regional and state transportation plans must be revised and updated (also required by SB375). Because highways, roads, fencing and rail inhibit habitat connectivity, special “crossing structures” for species were engineered. Road mitigation includes species underpasses, overpasses, culverts, and specialized fencing and tunnels.

It was determined that the greatest regional cost to effect this state wildlife action plan would be in the Great Central Valley, South Coast, and Northern Central Coast. (See map.)

Eco-Regions for NLB Delineation

To be effective, the California State Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Plan had to be “transparent, scientifically-defensible and repeatable.” However, on May 31, 2012 the WCB was compelled to update its policy due to recent scrutiny into its real property transaction policies. The first three paragraphs of their most recent draft policy convey the board’s approval of new policies. To read the entire draft policy click here.

“The Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) is authorized by statute to acquire, and make grants for the acquisition of, interests in real property to preserve and protect fish and wildlife and provide suitable recreation throughout the State. The purchase price for the real property must not exceed fair market value as established by an approved appraisal.”

“To ensure public confidence in amounts paid and procedures used for the acquisition of real property, while also ensuring that transactions can proceed efficiently and expeditiously, before approving an acquisition project where an agency proposes to spend more than $25 million of State funds WCB must also have the appraisal reviewed by a qualified independent appraiser and make the independent review report available to the public.”

“To continue to ensure public trust and confidence in the WCB acquisition process and provide additional transparency in the purchase of real property, independent review and disclosure of appraisal information as provided for in the following policy is deemed appropriate.”

The legislative framework that supports the California State Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Plan includes:

AB 2785, SB85, SAFETEA-LU: Section 6001, NCCP Act 2004, SB375, CEQA, CESA, NEPA, and FESA.