Environmental Species Act 

The Environmental Species Act was created in 1973, and since then has been the primary act for the protection of threatened species. It is administered on a federal level by the Interior Department’s US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).[1] One of its most influential aspects is the creation of critical habitats for listed endangered species. A critical habitat is an area necessary for the conservation of an identified species. When an area is designated as a critical habitat, federal agencies and “federally funded or permitted activities” cannot develop on this area.[2] This does not prohibit development by all other organizations. However, an area can be excluded from critical habitat designation “if an economic analysis determines that the benefits of excluding it outweigh the benefits of including it, unless failure to designate the area as critical habitat may lead to extinction of the listed species.”[3] The ESA also mandates that the FWS and the NMFS create recovery plans for each listed threatened species. These plans must address the criteria for recovery, explicit management actions, and an estimation of costs and resources necessary. Additionally, the ESA establishes a system of conservation banks, which are lands that are permanently protected as mitigation of the loss elsewhere of at-risk species and their habitat due to permitted development. 

The ESA, as noted by Ruhl, is “harm preventing, not benefit mandating.”[4] The ESA does not deal with “macro-scale indirect causation,” such as human activities that lead to climate change and the loss of habitat, but micro-scale direct causation, like the loss of natural habitat for urban development. Thus, programs that do not directly prevent harm, like the greenification of cities, are not included in the most wide sweeping animal protection laws of the US.[5] The ESA focuses more on the geographical footprint of an action than the ecological footprint of one. 

Laws Abroad

In Sweden, urban governance councils account for habitat loss and biodiversity preservation in their planning because biodiversity is central to their environmental policy. At a local level, each city follows a system of regulations to meet global biodiversity rules outlined by the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD has three main goals: the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.[6] In 2001, the Swedish parliament allocated SEK 440 million (about USD 40 million) to research on biodiversity for the period between 2002 and 2004. In cities like Stockholm, Goteburg, Malmo, and Orebo, empirical findings from research studies showed that the urban planning practices of creating urban green structure and increasing habitat connectivity significantly improved their regional biodiversity as defined by the CBD. Funding from the national level and guidance from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency has successfully driven these changes in policy and led to increases in biodiversity at a local level. The implications of successes abroad are case studies that the US can use to adapt into its own federalist government structure through the use of policy tools like mandates and grants-in-aid to push for change at the state and local level in greener urban planning policies. 

Beyond Legislation 

When evaluating the current state of regulations regarding biodiversity and habitat fragmentation, it is important to also look beyond legislation towards other forms of guidelines. The Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) program, from the Bureau of Land Management, is an example of the ways in which guidelines can be established in order to protect areas of high environmental significance. The ACECs are locations designated as requiring specialized management due to fish, wildlife, or other natural resources, alongside historical, cultural, and scenic values.[7] ACECs are evaluated and designated based on set criteria, with interdisciplinary planning teams creating land use plans to guide resource management and protections within each area.[8] These ACECs are important to take into account while designing green spaces or wildlife corridors within cities, particularly because parks often encompass parts of these protected regions. Similarly, the Bureau of Land Management designates certain threatened and endangered species as “Bureau Sensitive” based on occurrence on bureau lands, resulting in conservation objectives that can guide the planning of green spaces.[9]

International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), an international coalition focused on collaboration between local governments on sustainability initiatives, is a good example of the ways in which environmental guidelines can be collectively established and followed.[10] The 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity, including the ICLEI, established a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, intended for use by subnational governments and local authorities.[11] Similarly, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is a global initiative which provides a structured approach to the valuation of environmental goals, permitting decision makers to more uniformly consider the economic value of biodiversity.[12] Initiatives like these promote a sense of global unity in approaching the dilemmas of urban biodiversity and habitat fragmentation, while still permitting city governments to better take into account local needs. 

On a more local level, city governments will often establish their own set of environmental guidelines, particularly as they create city plans or budgets. A review of 40 cities globally found that their urban planning and biodiversity initiatives generally identified 34 key attributes, which could be organized into the following categories: baseline data, biodiversity and ecosystem service qualitative goals, quantitative targets, regulations, and commitment to implementation.[13] These attributes also generally fell within the scope of ICLEI Biodiversity Planning Guidelines and stepwise planning guidelines, indicating some level of commonality across different scales of biodiversity protection initiatives.[14]

In summary, the scope of environmental protections and guidelines is vast, ranging from federally mandated habitat preservation to local community initiatives. Clear goals for biodiversity and habitat preservation, set federally or by independent organizations and conventions, are necessary for the clear evaluation of human activity and programs.


[1] United States Fish and Wildlife Service. (2017, February). ESA basics: 40 years of conserving endangered species. https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/ESA_basics.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ruhl, J. (2009). Cities, green construction, and the Endangered Species Act. Virginia Environmental Law Journal, 27(2), 147-163. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24785982

[5] Ibid.

[6] Botanic Gardens Conservation International. (n.d.). Convention on biological diversity. https://www.bgci.org/our-work/policy-and-advocacy/convention-on-biological-diversity/#:~:text=The%20Convention%20on%20Biological%20Diversity,the%20utilization%20of%20genetic%20resources.

[7] United States Bureau of Land Management. (n.d.).
Areas of critical environmental concern. https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/planning-101/special-planning-designations/acec

[8] Ibid.

[9] United States Bureau of Land Management. (n.d.). State threatened and endangered information. https://www.blm.gov/programs/fish-and-wildlife/threatened-and-endangered/state-te-data

[10] International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. (n.d.). Who we are. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. https://icleiusa.org/about-us/who-we-are/

[11] Convention on Biological Diversity. (2017). Guidelines for an integrated approach in the development and implementation of national, subnational and local biodiversity strategies and action plans. http://cbc.iclei.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NBSAP_WEB_SINGLE_PAGES-2.pdf

[12] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. (n.d.). TEEB: the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity. http://teebweb.org/

[13] Nilon, C. H., Aronson, M., Cilliers, S., Dobbs, C., Frazee, L. J., Goddard, M. A., O’Neill, K. M., Roberts, D., Stander, E. K., Werner, P., Winter, M., & Yocom, K. P. (2017, April). Planning for the future of urban biodiversity: a global review of city-scale initiatives. BioScience, 67(4), 332–342. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/4/332/3065740

[14] Ibid.

[15] Elander, I., Alm, E., Malbert, B., & Sandstr, G. (2005). Biodiversity in urban governance and planning: examples from Swedish cities. Planning Theory and Practice, 6(3). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228351572_Biodiversity_in_Urban_Governance_and_Planning_Examples_from_Swedish_Cities