Land and Water
Conservation Bank

Oregon’s First Conservation Bank

A First.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently approved Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) operation of the first conservation bank in Oregon.  The 80-acre conservation bank, located near Medford, Oregon, will be used 1) to ensure that future road and highway improvement projects in the Rogue River Valley don’t conflict with efforts to conserve several threatened species that occur in the region, and 2) to avoid costly project delays that can arise from such conflicts. 

Species Benefit.  The species that will benefit from the conservation bank include two endangered plants, Cook’s lomatium and the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam; and the threatened vernal pool fairy shrimp, a small translucent crustacean (related to lobsters, crabs and saltwater shrimp).  Each of the species occur in vernal pool habitat— small, shallow wetlands that fill with water during fall and winter rains and dry up in spring and summer.  These wetlands have become very rare in Oregon and throughout the nation.  In Oregon, this habitat is concentrated in an area near Medford known as the Agate Desert.  The area was identified as a high priority conservation area in the state’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy and in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for vernal pool ecosystems.

Habitat Protections.  The land acquired by ODOT is important because it occurs in this high-priority area and currently supports populations of each of the species.  The land contains some of highest quality vernal pool habitat left in the region, as well as other rare habitats such as oak savanna and native perennial bunchgrass prairie.  The ODOT conservation bank also abuts a Nature Conservancy preserve and, together, the two properties constitute a single block of nearly 225 acres of protected vernal pool habitat.  The protection of large blocks of habitat distributed throughout the Agate Desert is a key component of the state and federal conservation strategies for vernal pool species.   

Wetlands Addressed.  In addition to being the first conservation bank in the state, the ODOT bank is significant in that it serves dual purposes— it also addresses impacts to wetlands under state and federal laws.  The Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Oregon Department of State Lands collaborated to make sure that approval of ODOT’s conservation bank was subject to only one set of standards and procedures.  This substantially reduced the time and effort spent on having the bank approved and was an important factor in ODOT’s willingness to become Oregon’s pioneering conservation banker.   

Process Streamlined.  Approval of the conservation bank is a significant milestone for Oregon.  It represents the introduction of an important conservation tool to the state and provides protection of habitat for some of the state’s most threatened species while still accommodating crucial transportation infrastructure investments in a rapidly developing region.  The collaboration between various agencies to streamline regulatory processes should serve as a model for future efforts and as an incentive for other entities to engage in conservation banking in the state.

What Is a Conservation Bank?

Conservation banks are permanently protected lands that are managed for endangered, threatened, and other at-risk species.  In exchange for permanently protecting the bank lands and managing them for listed and other at-risk species, the Fish and Wildlife Service approves habitat or species “credits” based on the natural resource values on the bank lands.  The land owners can then use these credits to compensate for the environmental impacts of their development projects, or sell the credits to others who need to provide compensation. 

Conservation banks are typically large enough to compensate for the impacts of multiple projects. The concentration of conservation actions for multiple projects into a single large area provides greater benefit to the species than if those actions occurred at the sites of the individual projects, in which case a site might be too small and isolated to support populations of the species.  Because of the financial and conservation benefits, conservation banking has become a much used tool for regulatory compliance and conservation in other states.