U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Scientific Panel's Assessment of Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Guidance

GAO-02-574: Published: May 15, 2002. Publicly Released: May 15, 2002.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must mitigate potential damage to fish and wildlife caused by dam construction, harbor dredging, and other projects. In the past, the Corps has acquired lands to replace lost habitat, created wetlands, or planted vegetation to stabilize soil and prevent erosion. The Corps' Civil Works Program deals with commercial navigation and flood damage, while its Regulatory Program oversees privately financed projects that affect water and land resources. According to Corps engineers, 28 of the 47 water resources projects authorized since enactment of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 required a fish and wildlife mitigation plan. For projects that received funding, less than half of the mitigation was completed before construction began. Of the remaining 19 projects, seven completed at least half of mitigation before initiating construction; two had not started construction but had done some mitigation; and 10 had not begun construction or mitigation. As of September 2001, 16 of the 34 projects where construction had begun had completed all of the mitigation. A panel of scientific experts similarly rated the overall quality of the national fish and wildlife mitigation by the Corps and the Federal Highway Administration's Federal-aid Highway Program. Although some panelists commended the program guidance for its clarity, currency, and inclusion of ample technical guidance, other panelists were more critical, noting that the guidance emphasized the determination and design stages to the detriment of the monitoring and evaluation stages, emphasized wetlands to the detriment of other lands, or failed to require corrective actions when projects did not succeed. On the basis of the guidance alone, panelists expressed concerns about estimating the success of the mitigation projects in restoring the natural hydrology and native vegetation and in supporting native fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, factors other than guidance affect mitigation projects, such as major storms that are difficult to control, or invasive weeds or wildlife species that unexpectedly dominate the site.

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