The southern San Joaquin Valley of California is home to more endangered species than any other region in the contiguous United States. This beautiful region is also economically rich with 3,786 oil and gas wells, a situation that presents a conflict of interest between those who want to preserve and those who want to develop the area. The Coles Levee Ecosystem Preserve is a novel project that seeks to develop a workable collaboration between the public and private sectors, while finding a solution to this conflict of interests. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and the California Department of Fish and Game have embarked on a joint effort to provide for environmental preservation and habitat protection while expediting economic development and making it easier for businesses to overcome regulatory hurdles.
This ambitious agenda is fulfilled through the establishment of a 6,000-acre preserve that is home to almost a dozen state and/or federally listed threatened or endangered species. ARCO manages this preserve with help from the Department with a guarantee to provide better or more habitat to listed species (called mitigation acreage). The company is also allowed to sell part of this acreage to third parties who propose to protect listed species. These "mitigation credits" are sold based upon free market principles. Traditionally, an oil producer needed permits from federal and state agencies through a cumbersome process involving surveying for listed species, preparing a report and undertaking mitigating actions. Such permits were typically granted if the producer found and dedicated separate mitigation land. The Coles system streamlines this regulatory process by reducing the number of steps and agencies involved in obtaining a permit. Furthermore, it concentrates mitigation activities in a single land preserve rather than creating isolated pockets of habitat. The end result is a program that encourages development, guarantees the protection of endangered species, and leads to more efficient government mechanisms.
The program's biggest accomplishment has been to exploit a valuable economic resource, namely oil, and provide species habitat at the same time. The provision of mitigation rights to third parties means that a significant number of smaller projects have been able to take off successfully without the usual delays. ARCO itself has benefited tremendously from the reduction of paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles.
The evident effectiveness of the program has led to its replication elsewhere in California. Chevron USA is currently negotiating with the Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a similar program that would address an 18,000-acre area. The Nature Conservancy, Yolo County, and several other agencies and individuals are currently studying the program for possible replication. In the area of environmental protection and habitat preservation, the Coles Levee Ecosystem Preserve stands out as a shining example of intelligent innovation combined with practical but careful policymaking. Private and public interests have combined forces to create a win-win situation.