California is set to spend hundreds of billions – if not trillions – of dollars over the coming decades on projects to adapt to a changing climate, deploy clean energy and upgrade aging infrastructure. It is crucial that these investments minimize their impact on natural resources and maximize high-quality conservation outcomes. Innovative conservation planning tools, such as Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (RCISs) can help guide investments to achieve these goals.
The RCIS Program
The Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) Program, originally authorized under AB2087, became law in January 2017. The RCIS Program was created as a non-regulatory mechanism to guide infrastructure investments in advance of a given project’s impacts to maximize conservation outcomes. In light of the substantial infrastructure investments needed to meet California’s ambitious clean energy goals as well as transportation, flood control and other projects, the RCIS Program can help both inform proposed siting, and help ensure that mitigation required by permitting agencies will be strategically invested from a conservation perspective. California also has an opportunity to help ensure that the approximately $300 M in annual mitigation funding helps meet the State’s ambitious 30×30 conservation goals.
Since its inception 7 RCISs have been approved with an additional 4 underway covering over 11 million acres in California (Figure 1). The program’s implementation was jump started by significant private philanthropy and an initial $5 M investment from Proposition 68, plus an additional $5 M in the recently approved state budget.
In September 2022, AB2805 was signed by Governor Newsom which finetuned the program and removed the initial cap on the number of RCISs that could be approved. In addition, the new legislation provided important clarifying language for the creation of advance mitigation credit. Additionally, the legislature and Governor proposed an additional $5 M investment to develop new RCISs through the Wildlife Conservation Board.
RCIS Program components
The RCIS Program focuses on the development of a non-regulatory, non-binding guidance document (the RCIS) that provides an ecological snapshot of a region. An RCIS can be prepared by any public agency and is approved by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Figure 2). The RCIS identifies conservation priorities that would advance the conservation of species, habitat, and other natural resources and enables advance mitigation. The RCIS can then be used to plan for public infrastructure projects, inform local land use, and guide public and private conservation investments.
An approved RCIS also allows for the development of Mitigation Credit Agreements (MCAs) which can be used to fulfill compensatory mitigation requirements for impacts to habitat and other natural resources. As an important additional benefit, AB 2087 can help increase permit efficiency and reduce timelines for transportation, flood control, and other infrastructure projects through MCAs. The credits created by MCAs are a new addition to the other paths California has for creating advance mitigation credit such as Conservation Banks and Natural Communities Conservation Plans (NCCPs). MCAs offer the opportunity to create credits for temporary impacts, habitat enhancement credits and through a MCA framework that could serve as an umbrella agreement for credits created at multiple sites.
Based on a state approved RCIS, an MCA can help direct the substantial resources that are expended for compensatory mitigation to the high priority biodiversity conservation actions identified in RCISs. That way public and private conservation investments and public and private mitigation investments work together strategically to maximize biodiversity benefits.
Originally conceived as a pilot program, the RCIS Program at CDFW has demonstrated its usefulness to the public agencies, including Regional Transportation Agencies, Reclamation Districts, DWR, and Open Space Districts that have sponsored them in order meet their conservation and infrastructure needs.
For additional information, see CDFW’s RCIS Program or contact Graham Chisholm at Graham@csgcalifornia.com.