Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP): Next Steps to a Solution

Where do we go once USFWS agrees to the draft plan?

Timeline of milestones for the HCP; currently at regulatory review

What is a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP)?

Thurston County is home to multiple federally-listed threatened and endangered species. The Endangered Species Act protections associated with these listings means some property owners have federal rules and requirements to work through before they can break ground on building and property development projects. The largest hurdle in the rules is a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). An HCP is a technical study detailing how to offset project impacts to protected species and species habitats. Anyone impacting habitat must have an HCP.

Image compilation of the pocket gopher, spotted frog, butterfly, and sparrow

Where is the county in the process?

On January 15, 2020, the county submitted its third draft HCP to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS). The county and a technical consultant worked with USFWS staff over 14-months to address technical questions, issues, and provide clarification. During this time, county staff also reassessed data, (e.g. covered species, new population, and property costs) revised the impact model, and updated the document to make it easier to read and understand.

What’s next?

Once USFWS agrees with the draft HCP plan, the county will move forward with the public and environmental review processes and offer multiple opportunities for the public to provide comments and feedback on the draft HCP. Additionally, the county will develop an Environmental Impact Statement where the public will again have opportunities to provide comments on the draft plan and processes.

Thurston County is continuing to invest in mitigation lands for the covered species so there is no delay in permit issuance after USFWS approves the final HCP.

Image of an umbrella symbolizing the HCP over boxes of what the umbrella HCP will cover

What will an HCP do to help property owners and project developers?

The HCP provides coverage for county property owners. It replaces the project-by-project site reviews and mitigation process property owners and project developers must currently complete. That process has many uncertainties associated with time and costs. The HCP provides an economic benefit to project applicants by eliminating those uncertainties. The plan creates a predictable, streamlined, and local permitting process for public and private development in Thurston County.

With an HCP, property owners wanting to do projects in prairie habitat will no longer have to wait for gopher surveys, write their own habitat conservation plans, or find and negotiate mitigation with the federal government under their own plan with uncertain time, costs, and results. Instead, applicants will be able pay a fee at the permit counter and proceed with their project under the county umbrella of a federal “incidental take permit”. This eliminates the need for property owners to obtain a difficult and costly individual take permit.

How does an HCP protect the species?

The HCP enhances coordinated conservation planning. It provides significant benefits to endangered and threatened species because it takes individual conservation efforts and puts them cohesively into a single conservation effort. The plan ensures strategic conservation of unique prairie lands throughout the county for the benefit of multiple threatened and rare species, and for the enjoyment of these protected areas by generations of county residents and visitors to come.

How much coverage does the HCP provide?

An HCP is like an insurance policy. With the coverage of an HCP, property owners currently at risk for not being able to develop their projects can transfer this risk to the county, who assumes responsibility for mitigation.

The HCP must show the federal government that the county can cover mitigation for all anticipated development in protected habitat over a 30-year period. The county has worked hard in the development of this third draft of the HCP to ensure the right amount of coverage. The county reduced the estimated amount of mitigation that may be needed over 30 years from 7,564 functional acres (16,866 acres) to 5,216 functional acres (9,221 acres).

The “policy premium” for this HCP coverage will be a mitigation fee. The fee is proportional to the amount and quality of the habitat impacted by a given project and is tied to the amount and cost of land that may be needed for mitigation of the impact. Anticipated mitigation fees will range from an average of $.04 to $1.17 per square foot of habitat impacted. Thurston County is committed to working with property owners to ensure their costs are minimized and their projects can move forward in a timely manner.

What are Functional Acres?

Functional acres are the land serving necessary functions to sustain a species. It is not just area of land but quality of land. Habitat quality is species specific and includes types and conditions of vegetation and soils on the building site and adjacent land. Some land is better (higher functioning) than others for a species. The HCP takes both quantity and quality into account. The amount of functional acres is then determined by acres of project area impacted multiplied by the habitat quality based on species specific needs.

Image showing how functional acres are calculated

How can I learn more?

To learn more about plan specifics, visit www.ThurstonPlanning.org and select ‘Habitat Conservation Plan’ from the menu on the left or submit a comment about the draft plan to https://thurstoncomments.org/comment-on-the-habitat-conservation-plan/.