Regulations under the Endangered Species Act often yield unintended consequences – penalizing good stewards of the land who provide quality habitat by restricting what they can and cannot do on their land. Since 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has developed 100 Safe Harbor Agreements to assure landowners that their good stewardship will not result in additional regulatory burdens. Have the agreements been a useful tool to protect species and to collaborate with landowners? Or have inefficiencies, red tape, and a lack of trust prevented this program from reaching its full potential.

Safe Harbor Agreements (SHAs) are yielding mixed and often inefficient results, according to a recent report by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. This first attempt at a program review of SHAs was conducted to assess the successes and failures of the program after over 20 years of real-world application.

While positive results have been achieved for at least one species (red-cockaded woodpecker), agreements for other species have not proved as effective (California red-legged frog, Schaus swallowtail butterfly, Karner blue butterfly). One agreement administrator even called the SHA more of a “diplomacy tool” than an agreement attracting the cooperation of landowners across the landscape.

Key Findings:

  • In eight southern states, more than 400 landowners have joined agreements that cover 3 million acres and have contributed to a 25% increase in the population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
  • Twelve state wildlife agencies administer their own Safe Harbor agreements. However, only two states have elected to administer more than one agreement.
  • State agencies lack the personnel, training, and capacity to implement agreements. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have stepped in to fill this role but struggle to sustain long-term efforts.
  • Some SHAs have been developed but have had no landowners sign on to participate. These agreements cover only the lands of the conservation NGO that administers the agreement.
  • Stakeholders are finding innovative ways to develop agreements. For example, one agreement in Arkansas covers 25 species, and allows two federal agencies, one state agency and one NGO to collaboratively administer the agreement. Also, “zero-baseline” agreements allow landowners with no endangered species on their land to engage in species reintroduction efforts without the risk of regulatory burdens.

The report also suggested several recommendations to increase the success of the SHA program. First and foremost, the report urges the USFWS to make a decision whether and how to scale up the program so that it has a more meaningful impact on conservation efforts and private landowners hosting listed species on their land. Second, the report lists several recommendations to help USFWS improve the program for both wildlife and landowners.

Key Recommendations:

  • The process should be streamlined. Establishing an agreement takes too long, and capacity for agreement development, review, and administration is inadequate. If the USFWS wishes to expand the program, a faster approach to agreement establishment is needed.
  • USFWS should put more trust in participating landowners. Many agreements are currently developed as a contract between opposing parties, rather than in a spirit of collaboration and partnership. Under current conditions, both parties seek to specify every contingency, document compliance, and carefully monitor agreement fulfillment. A higher level of trust in landowners would expedite agreement development and increase willingness to participate. If the USFWS truly trusts landowners to fulfill their agreements, then there is great opportunity to increase the success of the program.
  • Agreements should be more transparent. The USFWS “Conservation Plans Database” is incomplete, inaccurate, and out of date. Making SHAs more readily available to potential participants would demystify the process and increase participant interest.
  • Capacity should be increased to allow for more agreements with more landowners. Additional resources should be dedicated to supporting the program at the federal, state, and private levels if it is to reach its full potential.
  • USFWS should foster a more systematic approach. The USFWS should bring together various agreement developers and administrators to share common problems and find potential solutions. A more unified approach would help the USFWS determine which species would benefit most from the SHA program, leading to greater efficiency and a higher level of success.

Download the report