US Department of Transportation

FHWA PlanWorks: Better Planning, Better Projects

IEFStep 5 : Establish and Prioritize Ecological Actions

Integrated Ecological Framework Step

Purpose & Outcome


Establish mitigation and conservation priorities and rank preferred opportunities for ecological action using assessment results from Steps 3 and 4.

  • A regional mitigation (conservation, recovery, restoration) strategy, conservation and restoration priorities with quantitative and qualitative valuation of mitigation sites.
  • The preferred conservation/mitigation actions to achieve the priorities.
  • Strategies and actions that consider regulatory requirements and programmatic implementation opportunities, including seeking regulatory buy-in for mitigation solutions and/or establishing a mechanism by which resource agencies can convey their acceptance/approval of investments in vetted conservation or restoration priority areas.
  • Crediting opportunities (see IEF Step 6 for details).
  • Identified lead agency or agencies for each strategy and method for achieving each strategy.


TIP: To access more information on sub-steps, please visit the complete Guide to the Integrated Ecological Framework.

  1. Identify areas in the REF planning region that can provide the quantities and quality of mitigation needed to address the effects assessment and develop protocols for ranking mitigation opportunities. Ranking should be based on the site's ability to meet mitigation targets, along with: a) anticipated contributions to cumulative effects; b) the presence in priority conservation/restoration areas of the REF; c) ability to contribute to long-term ecological goals; d) the likelihood of viability in the landscape context; e) cost; and f) other criteria determined by the stakeholders.
  2. Select potential mitigation areas according to the ranking protocols.
  3. Field-validate the presence and condition of target resources for attention at mitigation sites and reassess the ability of sites to provide necessary mitigation. Revise the mitigation assessment as needed to identify a validated set of locations to provide mitigation. Compare feasibility/cost of conservation and restoration opportunities with ranking score and context of conservation actions of other federal, state, local and NGO programs to determine overall benefit/effectiveness. Predictive species modeling can target field validation process.
  4. Develop/refine a regional conservation and mitigation strategy (set of preferred actions) to achieve eco-regional conservation/restoration goals and advance infrastructure projects.
  5. Decide on and create a map of areas to conserve, manage, protect, or restore including documentation of the resources and their quantities to be retained/restored in each area, and the agency and mechanisms for conducting the mitigation.
  6. Obtain agreement on ecological actions from stakeholders.

Technical Questions

  • What areas within REF priority areas meet the mitigation criteria?
  • If required mitigation cannot be found within a REF priority area, what other mitigation opportunities exist that will further the agreed upon regional restoration plans goals and objectives?
  • What other conservation actions are occurring in the area?
  • Who owns or manages the identified priority areas?
  • What site-level measures are needed to verify progress at mitigation sites?
  • What are the protocols for ranking mitigation opportunities?
  • What is the most effective way to direct and conduct field validation of identified mitigation areas? How can field data be captured and provided to natural resource data maintainers/providers so that is can be used in future assessments?


  • Confidence distribution maps of the individual resources or quantities of resources in potential off-site locations (receiving areas) for mitigation of impacts to individual resources
  • Quantities of individual resources found within priority areas for mitigation
  • Surveys for rare and imperiled species and communities

Case Study Examples

Click on the arrows below for detailed information on each case
  • Location: South Carolina

    Description: When the Carolina Bays Parkway required additional interchanges, several South Carolina agencies came together to prioritize which local area was in the most need of protection and focus their attention there instead of at the actual site of the construction where mitigation efforts would not be able to effectively support ecosystem objectives. This led to the successful protection and enhancement of local wildlife linkage corridors connecting the two local wildlife preserves. In 2003, the interagency team, which had searched for opportunities to preserve, enhance, and expand the Lewis Ocean Bay NHP and the wildlife linkage corridor, signed an agreement outlining steps to accomplish these goals. South Carolina DOT (SCDOT) and the FHWA put $2.5 million into an escrow account to be spent on the preservation and expansion of Lewis Ocean Bay and the wildlife linkage zone. This Federal-aid money was agreed upon as partial mitigation for two new interchanges to be added to the Parkway. A management system was also put in place for the funds, with members of the USFWS, SCDNR, USACE, and NOAA Fisheries Service forming an Ecosystem Committee to oversee the expenditure of those funds on projects that will enhance, preserve, or expand the Lewis Ocean Bay NHP and protect the Waccamaw River wildlife linkage corridor. Additionally, SCDOT purchased access control of a public road, which limited growth opportunities in that area and protected some of the land adjacent to the Preserves. SCDOT also invited private landowners to become part of the solution. In exchange for one of the new interchanges on the Parkway, the private landowners are donating to SCDNR a 320-acre tract of land. This tract was a privately owned in-holding within Lewis Ocean Bay NHP that could have been developed.

  • Location: , Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, Washington

    Description: Paper discusses how GIS can help assess and model cumulative impacts. Case studies deal with data management, interagency cooperation & outreach, spatial analysis & modeling, and re-engineering DOT business practices through the use of GIS.

  • Location: North Carolina

    Description: Case study for North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) describing effort to disassociate compensatory ecosystem mitigation from permit approval processes and project reviews. A brief summary can also be found on page 24 in Eco-Logical.

  • Location: North Carolina

    Description: North Carolina's Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP) streamlined the project delivery process of the US 64 bypass, as well as reduced environmental impacts with avoidance and minimization and produced the most environmentally beneficial mitigation possible. EEP protects the state's natural resources through the assessment, restoration, enhancement, and preservation of ecosystem functions, and through identifying and implementing compensatory mitigation programmatically, at the watershed level. A year of multi-agency process improvement workshops determined that compensatory mitigation should be "de-coupled" from individual permits and project reviews, and performed on a watershed basis, with mitigation projects constructed in advance of permitted impacts according to collaboratively identified priorities.

  • Location: Oregon

    Description: CETAS is a multi-agency (including Federal & State transportation, natural resource, cultural resource, and land-use planning agencies) committee that works to bring all partners together to focus on communication, participation & early involvement in Environmental Assessments & Environmental Impact Statements. The goal of CETAS is to provide input at major decision making points in projects, help Oregon DOT to develop & implement statewide environmental initiatives, etc, to reach environmentally informed decisions from the beginning stages of the project. CETAS also includes guidance assisting project teams to prepare proper data quality for effective analysis & decision support. GIS is a large component, with some of the info web-based, in order to ensure up to date & easily accessible information to project teams regarding environmental sensitive areas/areas of interest, etc (i.e. the Salmon Resources and Sensitive Area Mapping project).

  • Location: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Multi-State

    Description: Matrix showing dozens of case studies from all over the United States that demonstrate effective practices in long-range and corridor planning, as well as linking planning and NEPA. Columns show which studies incorporate one or more of the following areas: Inter-agency coordination & consultation, mitigation, spatial data & tools, GIS, and process guidelines or changes.

  • Location: California

    Description: Use of repeatable, scientific approach for selecting mitigation sites and establishing conservation goals: An example of providing compensation prior to impacts is the Regional Advance Mitigation Planning (RAMP) effort in California (Thorne et al 2009). This innovative effort estimated potential future impacts to resources by developing a "footprint" of future projects, using that to identify resources that may be impacted, and then developing a method for identifying sites that could offset these particular impacts in a way that contributes to regional and statewide conservation priorities. This framework was tested in a subregion of the Central Valley near Sacramento, California. Once a list of the species and habitat types that would potentially be impacted in the region was identified, the locations of these species and habitats were mapped across the region and overlaid with many other data layers including ownership, land cover, species habitat, minimum size of habitat, priority conservation areas, etc. to evaluate each parcel's contribution to restoring potentially impacted ecological components. MARXAN was used to evaluate each parcel and identify the ones with the most potential for high quality compensatory mitigation. Some of the resources that were identified for compensatory mitigation included vernal pool complexes, Giant Garter Snakes, and Burrowing Owls. Although this type of "systematic planning of ecological offsets" has been demonstrated in other publications (Kiesecker et al. 2009), this project illustrated an effective process that "integrated the mitigation needs of more than one infrastructure agency."

Tools & Methods

Click on the arrows below for detailed information on each tool or method.

  • Description: BASINS is designed to be used by regional, state, and local agencies to perform watershed- and water-quality-based studies and as a system for supporting the development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs). Version 3.1 is compatible with ArcView 3.1, 3.2, or 3.3. It is not compatible with the current ArcGIS suite of applications. Version 4.0 contains an installation program for use in an open source GIS program (MapWindow).


  • Description: CAPS is an ecological community-based approach for assessing the ecological integrity of lands and waters and prioritizing land for habitat and biodiversity conservation. The approach defines ecological integrity as the ability of an area to support biodiversity and the ecosystem processes necessary to sustain biodiversity over the long term. The approach assumes that by conserving intact, ecologically-defined communities of high integrity, most species and ecosystems can be conserved.

  • Description: To supplement the rapid bioassessment protocols (Plafkin et al. 1989; rev. Barbour et al. 1999) by illustrating how Region 10 States have adapted the RBPs for the northwestern U.S.; to define the minimum components necessary to conduct stream bioassessment; and to encourage consistency of sampling methods to facilitate data sharing. Ordinal scale, nominal scale, and quantitative output.

  • Description: Florida DOT (FDOT) pioneered the award-winning Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM) program, which collaboratively works with Florida Water Management Districts (WMDs) to prioritize resource mitigation needs at the watershed or basin level. WMDs proactively acquire compensation sites and restore wetlands by watershed. ETDM accelerates environmental review for state environmental permits, CWA §404, and ESA mitigation, in addition to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. Early identification of potential impacts is promoted through the program's Environmental Screening Tool (EST), an online database that overlays transportation project and resource data from various sources, allowing planners to share data and foresee potential ecological impacts of infrastructure investments.

  • Description: A wetland functional assessment that evaluates the relative probability that a constructed freshwater wetland will develop to approximate the functioning of natural wetlands over time.

  • Description: The Conservation Fund's strategic conservation services use a green infrastructure planning approach-simultaneously focusing on the best lands to conserve and the best lands to accommodate development and human infrastructure-to help communities, state and federal agencies, and businesses balance environmental and economic goals through strategies that lead to smarter, sustainable land use; Green infrastructure plans: Development of comprehensive green infrastructure plans that identify community priorities and goals, inventory current community assets, map green space networks, develop strategies for implementation, and build capacity for communities to achieve their conservation visions; Decision support tool design and implementation: Integrate data, knowledge and analyses (e.g. ecosystem services, optimization, suitability analysis) to support land use decision making and prudent use of resources; Mitigation support: Identify and evaluate mitigation opportunities for agencies and business organizations from Habitat Conservation Plans, transportation improvement projects, military compatible- use buffer programs and pipeline/transmission/energy corridors.

  • Description: To aid managers in discerning the relationships between wildlife populations (for elk and mule deer) and habitat sustainability. The model produces a range of population values with related management implications (e.g., grazing, burning) that can be used in the planning process. Developed to resolve fence and forage conflicts on private and public lands. Quantitative output.

  • Description: PII is a protocol allows the user to evaluate potential development sites using checklists and rank them against a reference site. Objectives are to: (1) assist developers in deciding whether to proceed with development; (2) provide a procedure to determine pre-construction study needs to verify use of potential sites by wildlife; and (3) provide recommendations for monitoring potential sites postconstruction to identify, quantify, or verify actual impacts (or lack thereof).


  • Description: LEAM urban land-use transformation modeling begins with drivers, those forces (typically human) that contribute to land-use change. Model drivers represent the dynamic interactions between the urban system and the surrounding landscape. Each driver is developed as a contextually independent sub-model which allows for calibration before being run simultaneously in the LEAM model. Environmental, economic and social system impacts of alternative scenarios such as different land-use policies, growth trends, and unexpected events can be tested out in the LEAM modeling environment. Scenario results and impact assessments can be displayed in a number of ways: as simulation movies, through a built-in mapping tool, in graph or chart displays, or simply as raw data. LEAM's visual representation of each scenario's outcome provides an intuitive means of understanding the potential of decisions and acts as a catalyst for discussion and communal decision-making. All driver models figure into creating the development probability model, while the impact models respond to the land use change that is triggered by the development probability model. Impacts assessed by the LEAM model are also used in the creation of sustainable indices and indicators that can feed back into the model drivers for new policy formation.

  • Description: An HGM reference-based assessment restricted to depressional and riverine class wetlands located in Washington's western lowlands.


  • Description: MDOT initiated use of a geospatial site selection tool for strategic identification of ideal compensation areas - called the Wetland Mitigation Site Suitablity Index (WMSSI). This wetland mitigation tool allowed MDOT to analyze watershed trends in aquatic resources and subsequently rank possible mitigation sites by restoration potential; projected restoration value was measured based on hydric soils, historic wetlands, and topographic wetness data. The tool calculates composite suitability rankings by determining the weighted geometric mean of the environmental variables. Higher index values indicate more suitable locations. This technique builds on methods published by Van Lonkhuyzen (2004) and on the USFWS Habitat Evaluation Procedure (1981). The result of the WMSSI tool analyses in combination with a property selection tool integrates MDOTs methodology for acquiring real estate for mitigation sites with locations identified by WMSSI. The property selection tool includes criteria like size of parcel, adjacency to roads, existing wetlands and MI Dept of Natural Resource lands. "Under a project-by-project mitigation strategy, MDOT reported that staff commonly accompanied regulators on at least 4-5 site visits to determine the ecological suitability of potential restoration sites; now, MDOT's progressive approach to mitigation prevents consideration of less promising compensation sites and MDOT receives approval for around 95% of mitigation sites on their first site visit (Venner 2010). Over the past decade, Michigan DOT (MDOT) has transitioned from a traditional, project-by-project approach to aquatic resource compensatory mitigation, which coupled timelines and funds for wetland mitigation with individual transportation projects, to a watershed approach that separated compensation and transportation project funding. Allowing holistic consideration of wetland mitigation has permitted MDOT to achieve economies of scale via off-site, consolidated wetland mitigation sites, reducing per-acre compensation costs from typically exceeding $100,000, and generally falling between $75,000 and $150,000, to a present-day average cost of $25,000-$30,000 per acre (Venner 2010)." (cited from NCHRP 25-25, Task 67 report)

  • Description: The original 1992 version of MnRAM was developed to provide a practical assessment tool that would help local authorities make sound wetland management decisions as they assumed responsibility for regulating wetland impacts. The current version represents a more refined procedure that provides numeric, rather than the original descriptive, ratings. It may be applied to existing wetlands or potential restoration sites. Descriptive and ordinal scale output.

  • Description: The Ohio Rapid Assessment Method is designed to aid in the determination of wetland categories as defined in Ohio's Wetland Antidegradation Rule. The use of the Ohio Rapid Assessment Method should not be considered as a substitute, and is not intended to be a substitute, for detailed studies of the functions and biology of a wetland.

  • Description: Being developed as a rapid functional assessment combining visual assessments and collection of spatial data. Considers both wetland functions and conditions.

  • Description: To provide a technique that (1) assesses 4 major functions and 7 values of vernal pool wetlands, (2) is standardized and rapid (in the sense that the procedure can be completed in one day or less), (3) is well-documented with scientific literature, mainly from Oregon, and (4) can be used to prioritize vernal pool complexes and compare them before and after restoration or impact. Ordinal scale output.


  • Description: The purpose of (PHABSIM) is to simulate a relationship between streamflow and physical habitat for various life stages of a species of fish or a recreational activity. The basic objective of physical habitat simulation is to obtain a representation of the physical stream so that the stream may be linked, through biological considerations, to the social, political, and economic world.


  • Description: To provide a rapid, reproducible measure of stream habitat generally corresponding to the physical stream factors that affect fish communities and other aquatic life. Results in an index (scale 0 to 100), representing an evaluation of a stream's macrohabitat characteristics that are important to fish communities relative to streams within a given watershed or region.

  • Description: Restore integrates models of watershed function and economic characterizations of restoration options with stakeholder-determined constraints and priorities to provide a tool for stakeholders to identify feasible restoration strategies and evaluate the ecological and economic effectiveness of these strategies at addressing watershed-level function. The approach involves integrating 1) models of hydrology, water quality, biodiversity, and habitat quality at the watershed scale, 2) socioeconomic analyses of stakeholder constraints on feasible restoration options and 3) economic analysis of restoration options to develop a GIS-based decision tool for generating and evaluating restoration strategies consistent with stakeholder goals.

  • Description: Provide a regional evaluation of the condition of wetland (river and lake) resources in order to aid in development of a watershed management plan. Nominal scale output.

  • Description: The Unified Stream Assessment is a rapid technique to locate and evaluate problems and restoration opportunities within an urban stream corridor in Maryland.

  • Description: To identify and classify subwatersheds that are vulnerable to changes in land use based on estimates of current and future impervious cover; and to identify subwatersheds that warrant restoration actions. Descriptive output.


  • Description: WET is an initial, rapid assessment of wetland functions, designed to assess the qualitative probability that a wetland function will occur. WET has been superseded by more rigorous reference-based, regionally specific methods recently developed.


  • Description: To allow a qualitative holistic evaluation of wildlife habitat for particular tracts of land statewide (Texas) without imposing significant time requirements. WHAP is intended to be used for (a) evaluating impacts upon wildlife populations from development project alternatives, (b) establishing baseline conditions, (c) comparing tracts of land which are candidates for land acquisition or mitigation, and (d) evaluating general habitat quality and wildlife management potential for tracts of land over large geographical areas. Ordinal scale output.