Division of Planning
Southeast Region


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Land Acquisition Planning Procedures

Credit: USFWS

Credit: USFWS

I. Introduction

Numerous laws, not including refuge-specific legislation, give the Service authority for acquisition of land and water to conserve fish, plant, and wildlife habitat. The resource purposes of these laws include migratory birds, wetlands, endangered species, fisheries, wilderness, and general fish and wildlife habitat. The Refuge Recreation Act added wildlife-oriented recreation as an additional purpose for acquisition. The 1997 Refuge Improvement Act charges the Secretary of the Interior with planning and directing the growth of the System to accomplish its mission, to contribute to Ecosystem conservation of the United States, to complement state and other agency efforts, and to increase support from partners and the public.

"The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans."

The Service recognizes that one of the most important challenges in the land acquisition process is the development of integrated national and regional habitat goals and objectives. The Directorate is forming a national team to address this challenge.

One of the national team's task will be to provide stepped down guidance to the Service's Ecosystem Teams in order to provide consistent direction in defining the areas of greatest conservation concern. Ecosystem Teams should be the primary delivery mechanisms for establishing priorities and identifying areas of greatest conservation concern in their Ecosystems. The Regional Refuge Chief will then balance the needs of conflicting Ecosystem Team priorities into an Regional land acquisition priority for the Regional Director and, when appropriate, the Director's approval.

To the maximum extent possible, all land acquisition projects in the Service's Southeast Region will be developed from a total landscape perspective. Because management strategies are being implemented on an Ecosystem basis, every acquisition project should be designed to support the resource protection strategies for the Ecosystem in which it lies.

Proposals for land acquisition often originate as an idea or recommendation from a Service employee, a private landowner, a conservation organization, a politician, or anyone else who believes the Service should acquire a particular piece of land. These proposals must all be investigated. In evaluating them, however, the focus and justification must be on how they contribute to the Ecosystem's goals and objectives.


II. Project Identification

The priorities for acquisition in Region 4 are: 1.) complete acquisition of significant inholdings at existing refuges; 2.) pursuit of significant expansions of existing refuges; and 3.) creations of new refuges.

All proposals for potential new refuges or refuge expansions should first be submitted to the Team Leader of the respective Ecosystem Team. The concept will then be presented to the full Team. Teams that meet infrequently should develop procedures for the timely review of all proposals.

It is important to take the concept to the Ecosystem Team for three major reasons:

  • To cull inappropriate or unfeasible recommendations;
  • To give the Team an opportunity to enhance the proposal with its broad base of knowledge, expertise, and experience; and
  • To assure that the refuge proposals are based on their contribution to the goals and objectives of the Ecosystem in which they are located.

Each Ecosystem Team will review all land acquisition proposals in that Ecosystem and decide if the proposal moves forward in the planning process.

If the Ecosystem Team recommends further planning, the Team Leader will notify the originator of the proposal, the Refuge Manager of the appropriate refuge, the appropriate Refuge Supervisor, and the Land Acquisition Planning Branch in the Division of Planning that a Pre-proposal Investigation should be conducted.


III. Pre-Proposal Investigation

The first formal field reconnaissance of the proposed acquisition area is documented in a Pre-Proposal Investigation. All proposed new refuges and refuge expansions require a Pre-Proposal Investigation. Pre-Proposal Investigations for new refuges are generally prepared by the Land Acquisition Planning Branch. Pre-Proposals for refuge expansions are generally prepared by the refuge staff. In both cases, the Land Acquisition Planning Branch or the refuge staff will coordinate with the Ecosystem Team in developing the Pre-Proposal Investigation. Other Service personnel, such as Wildlife and Habitat Management, Ecological Services, and Fisheries staff, will be called upon as needed.

The Pre-Proposal Investigation will be short, generally no more than two pages in length. It will include a USGS quadrangle map with the project area fully delineated. It will document the fish and wildlife resources, both potential and existing, found on the area. It should generally take no more than two to three weeks to complete, from the initial scheduling and field investigation to the writing of the Pre-Proposal Investigation report.

Once the Pre-Proposal Investigation is completed, it will be submitted to the Team Leader of the respective Ecosystem Team. The Ecosystem Team will then evaluate the Pre-Proposal Investigation (during a Team meeting, a meeting of a land acquisition committee, or through other processes that the Team may devise) and recommend whether or not a proposal should move forward in the planning process. The recommendations should include information on the Ecosystem Goals and Objectives the project contributes to. The Ecosystem Team will also rank the Pre-Proposal Investigation with the other land acquisition proposals (i.e. all current land acquisition proposals) within that Ecosystem. Each Ecosystem Team will rank all of its potential land acquisition projects in numerical order with 1 being the highest priority, 2 the second highest priority, and so on. The Ecosystem team's land acquisition project ranking criteria may include the following:


Contribution to Refuge & Service Mission Director's Priorities
Trust Resources Threats
 Conservation of Biodiversity Refuge O & M Needs
Contribution to Landscape-level Conservation Partnership Potential
Nationally Significant Habitat Public Support
Congressional Interest Public Benefit
Potential LAPS Ranking MBCC Ranking
Potential Acquisition by Another Group Willing Sellers
Contribution to Habitat Contiguity State/NGO Priorities
Funding Availability/Donations Acquisition Costs


It is understood that biological factors will be the driving force for the project ranking; however, the Ecosystem Teams should also recognize that the priorities may be affected by outside (i.e., non-biological) factors.

After a Pre-Proposal Investigation has been approved and ranked by the respective Ecosystem team, it is then forwarded to the Land Acquisition Planning Branch with a recommendation that it be considered for further planning through the development of a Preliminary Project Proposal. An ad-hoc Land Acquisition Review Committee, consisting, at the minimum, of the Regional Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System; representatives from the other Program's (i.e. Fisheries, Ecological Services, and Migratory Birds, the appropriate Refuge Supervisor; and the Senior Realty Officer; will meet to discuss the proposal from a regional perspective and decide whether sufficient resources are present to warrant the development of a Preliminary Project Proposal. If the ad hoc Land Acquisition Review Committee concurs with the team's recommendation and determines that sufficient resources are present, a Preliminary Project Proposal will be developed. The Land Acquisition Review Committee will meet periodically with the Regional Director to assure consistency with Regional and National priorities.


IV. Preliminary Project Proposal

The Land Acquisition Planning Branch has the lead for the development of the Preliminary Project Proposal. The Land Acquisition Planning Branch will coordinate with and/or enlist the aid of the Refuge Manager and the Ecosystem Team in developing the Preliminary Project Proposal. Other Service personnel will be called on for assistance as appropriate. Preliminary Project Proposals normally require approximately 3 to 4 months to complete.

During its final development in the Regional Office, the draft Preliminary Project Proposal will undergo an extensive internal review. This review is cross-program in nature and includes field input through both the affected Project Leader (Refuge Manager) and Ecosystem Team. The Ecosystem Team will provide a technical review of the Preliminary Project Proposal and will review the project's present ranking within the Ecosystem to determine if it requires adjustment.

The Preliminary Project Proposal analyzes the total needs for a project, including resource protection, resource management, and administrative objectives. Proposals for new refuges are considered as whole functioning systems, rather than single-species or single-objective projects. Similarly, refuge expansion proposals consider the total needs of the refuge and are not limited to just the expansion component. Because Preliminary Project Proposals are suppose to be holistic in nature and because of the limited planning resources available, the life span of an approved Preliminary Project Proposal will be considered to be 5 years, and no new Preliminary Project Proposals will be proposed during its effective life time.

Preliminary Project Proposals for new refuge proposals will generally be prepared by the Land Acquisition Planning Branch staff, with input from and coordination with the appropriate Ecosystem Team and refuge staff. New refuge proposals must be based on their contribution to the goals and objectives of the Ecosystem in which they are located, and the Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Preliminary Project Proposals for refuge expansions will generally be developed by the refuge staff with assistance from the Land Acquisition Planning Branch, and the Ecosystem Team. Proposals for refuge expansions must also be based on their contribution to the refuge's role in meeting the Ecosystem's goals and objectives. They should be jointly developed between the refuge staff and the Ecosystem Team, with full support from the Refuge Supervisor and the Regional Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System.

In addition, Outreach Plans will be completed for all Preliminary Project Proposals. The Outreach Plan will be included as part of the Preliminary Project Proposal in an appendix.

When completed, the Preliminary Project Proposal will be submitted to the Washington Office for review and approval. It will represent the Regional Director's recommendation to the Director. As such, it is conceptual in nature and justifies the proposed project.

Approval by the Director gives the Regional Director the authority to proceed with detailed planning for the project.

However, refuge expansion proposals that consist of 10% or less of the approved acquisition boundary acreage of the refuge (or 40 acres, whichever is greater) are defined as non-significant and are exempt from the requirement to submit a Preliminary Project Proposal for approval to the Washington Office. In such cases, the Preliminary Project Proposal will still be prepared by the refuge staff, and will be sent to the Planning and Support Team for internal review to determine the scope and evaluate the justification of the project. It will then be submitted to the Regional Director for approval. This delegation to the Regional Director is subject to the following requirement: the addition must be contiguous or adjacent to the established unit and clearly necessary for its management. "Adjacent" is defined as being located within one mile (or less) from the established boundary. This delegation cannot be used to acquire a separately managed division of the initial unit or to acquire a parcel with no biologically based relationship to the established refuge.


V. Land Acquisition Decision Document

The Land Acquisition Planning Branch has the lead for the development of the Decision Document. The Land Acquisition Planning Branch will coordinate with and/or enlist the aid of other Service personnel, as needed. Decision Documents normally require between 6 to 12 months to complete.

The Decision Documents records the Southeast Region's compliance with all applicable laws, executive orders, and Departmental and Service guidance. The primary components of the Decision Documents are the Environmental Assessment and the Land Protection Plan. Because both documents require a public review and complement each other, they are developed and printed together as a single document. The Environmental Assessment/Land Protection Plan also includes a Conceptual Management Plan, an Interim Compatibility Determination, and a Recreation Funding Analysis as appendices. During the development of the Environmental Assessment/Land Protection Plan the same internal review procedures described for Preliminary Project Proposals are followed, including review by both the Refuge Manager, the Ecosystem Team Leader, and other Service Programs.

Other elements of the Decision Documents include the Endangered Species Section 7 Consultation, a contaminant evaluation, a form that certifies coordination with the state clearinghouse, a Realty Feasibility Report, a certification of compliance with Executive Orders 11988 and 11990, and cultural resources clearances.

The Conceptual Management Plan, while technically a pre-acquisition document, is transitional to an operations mode and will be developed jointly by refuge and Land Acquisition Planning Branch staff. The Interim Compatibility Determination will be based on the Conceptual Management Plan and developed by a Refuge Manager designated by the Refuge Supervisor. The Recreation Funding Analysis will also be prepared by the Refuge Manager.

The scope of the project can change during the development of the Decision Documents. However, if it is determined that the project needs to be expanded in size significantly (greater than a 10% increase), a revised Preliminary Project Proposal must be developed for resubmission to the Director.

The Decision Documents and all other planning components are completed only when the Director signs the project's Approval Memorandum.


VI. Comprehensive Conservation Plans and Land Acqusition Planning

Comprehensive Conservation Plans are now required for all National Wildlife Refuges. All refuges are scheduled to have completed plans within a 15-year planning schedule. At the end of the 15 years, older plans will be reviewed and revised, as appropriate. Some Comprehensive Conservation Plans involve the proposed expansion of the refuge, while others do not.

When there is no land acquisition component in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan, normal planning procedures, as described in the Service Manual at 602 FW 2, are employed. Pre-planning precedes public involvement in scoping issues, problems, and attitudes. The Region then develops a draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan that goes through an internal review, including the Washington Office, before being released to the public. After public review, the draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan is developed into the final plan based on all appropriate input and is approved by the Regional Director.

When the Comprehensive Conservation Plan contains a land acquisition component, the two processes (Land Acquisition Planning and Comprehensive Conservation Planning) need to be conducted as a single streamlined process. The Ecosystem Team, with input from the refuge, should be involved in defining the land acquisition component during the pre-planning phase and throughout the scoping and early analysis. A Preliminary Project Proposal must be submitted to the Washington Office and approved before the draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan is released for public review. After public review, the draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan is developed into the final plan based on all appropriate input and is sent to the Washington Office for the Director's approval of the land acquisition component.


VII. General

In order to fully incorporate the Ecosystem Teams' role in the land acquisition process, the following action items need to be implemented at the Regional level:

  • The Regional Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System will fully consider the Ecosystem Team's recommended land acquisition priorities and will consult with the Chief of Realty, Refuge Supervisors, and other Service Program Assistant Regional Directors, as appropriate, to set the Regional land acquisition priorities.
  • There will be agreement between the Ecosystem Teams, the appropriate Refuge Supervisor and Chief of Realty that each will check with and communicate with each other before recommending changes in priorities to the Regional Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System.
  • The Land Acquisition Planning Branch will provide status reports on the land acquisition projects to the Ecosystem Team Leaders, who will report and communicate this status to all Project Leaders.
  • An Ascertainment Biologist from the Land Acquisition Planning Branch is assigned to each Ecosystem Team and is available to the Team, as needed.
  • The Refuge Managers will review the Land Acquisition Priority System (LAPS) profile for each project annually.

The Ecosystem Teams have additional responsibilities in order to fulfill their role in the land acquisition process, as follows:

  • Each Ecosystem Team will identify the priority focus areas for land acquisition based on their biology and threats, with special consideration given to existing Service trust resources (i.e., refuges and hatcheries). This information could include a GIS data base of important resources.
  • The Ecosystem Team members will maintain contact with all conservation partners within the Ecosystem in order to stay abreast of critical land acquisition needs across the landscape.
  • Each Ecosystem Team will review and prioritize all Pre-Proposal Investigations and Preliminary Project Proposals in relation to the identified focus areas, and the Ecosystem Plan goals and objectives.
  • The Ecosystem Teams will consider partnerships on selected projects.


Last updated: March 2, 2012