How USFWSs IPaC Streamlines Environmental Review and Permitting

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s IPaC software makes environmental review and permitting more straightforward, efficient, and transparent than ever for the Service and users alike.

This topic was covered in the 14th episode of Ecobot’s webinar series, Convergence of Wetland Science and Technology. View recorded episodes here.

Topics Overview of IPaC (Information for Planning and Consultation)

  • Moderator Jeremy Schewe, PWS, Chief Scientific Officer, Ecobot 

Presenters & Panelists Victoria Foster, National IPaC Coordinator, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Chellby K. Johnson, PhD, Biologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Lane Masoud, MGIS, Project Manager, Michigan Department of Transportation
Michelle Hobgood, MEM, Environmental Specialist, North Carolina Department of Transportation

What is IPaC? IPaC is a project planning tool run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Short for “Information for Planning and Consultation,” the program streamlines the environmental permitting process, specifically focused on Section 7, Endangered Species Act consultation. IPaC’s vision, explains Victoria Foster, National IPaC Coordinator at USFWS, is to improve the process of Section 7 consultations. “IPaC will transform interagency cooperation by delivering efficient 21st-century consultations and greatly improving regulatory consistency, predictability, and transparency,” she says. “We think that if we can make the process easier, we can even drive better conservation outcomes.”

Additional IPaC objectives are as follows:

  • Improve the consultation experience for the public, federal agencies, and the USFWS
  • Reduce duplication in effort and plan for smaller workload
  • Minimize/streamline low benefit/low risk workload
  • Drive conservation and compliance through convenience 
  • Improve public accountability and credibility
  • Reduce requests for information by providing access to high quality information and improve timeliness of decisions
  • Gain time for biologists to focus on conservation outcomes
  • Facilitate data integration

IPaC serves almost 900 visitors per day on average, with over 46,500 registered users. Users can collaborate on projects and share files. 

On average, IPaC delivers approximately 300 Official Species Lists (OSL), including survey guidelines, general conservation measures, and Best Management Practices (BMPs) for species on the OSL. Over 275,000 OSLs have been delivered between 2018 and 2020. In this time, IPaC has helped users screen over 33,000 projects.

IPaC usage continues to grow, as do the number of available resources, which will grow to cover more areas, projects, and species over time.

There are currently Production (aka Live) and Beta (aka Test) IPaC environments.

Key Benefits of IPaC

Efficiency

In addition to OSLs, IPaC delivers Determination Keys (DKeys), which help streamline Section 7 consultations. These are logically structured sets of questions, which assist users in determining whether a project qualifies for a predetermined consultation outcome based on an existing programmatic consultation or internal standing analysis. These are essentially dichotomous keys, explains Foster, which predate IPaC, but with this technology, they’re able to be delivered more efficiently and effectively. IPaC leverages geospatial data to automatically answer questions for the user based on their project intersect and the USFWS’s background layers. It enables the USFWS to better track the use and implementation of these programmatic consultations. It also delivers automated concurrence letters, so that if a project qualifies with a DKey and is submitted by an action agency, consultation for a smaller project could be completed in a half hour or less, and a letter is delivered via email. A biologist from USFWS is notified to look over the material, and they reach out if they need any further information. 

This process amounts to significant time savings on both sides, with project information logged immediately and consistently. In turn, the USFWS is able to accomplish better reporting with minimal administrative burden. 

Consistency

If different offices are working on the same species, they are able to standardize which questions they’re using. In other words, DKey users see consistent logic. 

Transparency

When there are differences in the questions used for a species across its range, the USFWS adds information that helps clarify why they might ask something differently in one area versus another.

What’s Next for IPaC? IPaC’s Consultation Package Builder (CPB) helps users compile a complete Biological Assessment & Consultation Package before submitting a consultation request. “We envisioned this as a TurboTax process for a biological assessment,” says Foster. “It walks a user bit by bit, section by section, item by item, on everything we would think about wanting to ask. What do we want to know for these species? What do we need to know about your project?” 

The most common delay for a consultation, Foster explains, is that not all the necessary information is included in a request. By helping a user think through each element of the request–everything necessary to make analyses and conclusions–the CPB hopes to alleviate this common pain point and ensure that the USFWS has all the information they need from the beginning.

Additionally, the CPB helps users think through, analyze, and document all potential effects and proposed conservation actions with a project. It leverages data from the Effect Pathway Manager (EPM) to provide helpful recommendations for analyzing a project, and provides a consistently formatted biological analysis document.

IPaC is moving to a cloud-based server, which will enable faster service. It is integrating with ECOSphere, the next generation of recordkeeping software for the USFWS. Existing tools such as the CPB, EPM, and DKeys will be built out and improved. 

To view a demo of IPaC in both Beta and Production environments, use the button at the top of the article to access the webinar.

What is the Effect Pathway Manager (EPM)? The EPM is an internal-only USFWS software package which implements a structured approach to evaluating the causal relationships between activities and potential effects to federally listed species. USFWS biologists populate it internally, and then it feeds the CPB. The CPB leverages that data in a granular way and delivers prompts to users to explain resource needs for the species, and to analyze suggested stressors that frequently result from certain activity. This helps guide thinking on recommended conservation measures. With CPB, the user gets this information ahead of going back and forth with a biologist.

Currently, 219 species have published pathways, while 72 others are in progress. 13 of these are resolved taxons.

The EPM works through Activity Deconstructions, including 54 top-level activities such as road constructions or mining, and provides activity prompts. There are 30 additional activities being deconstructed and reviewed.

Finally, the EPM includes Conservation Measures, currently for 67 species.

Case Study: IPaC and Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)

Lane Masoud, MGIS, is a project manager at MDOT, where he reviews local road projects for potential environmental impacts, and helps guide transportation agencies through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. These agencies are frequently rural road commissions or small cities and villages without many, if any, environmental staff. 

These agencies must include relevant IPaC species lists with their submission for NEPA review. This ensures that the local agencies are aware of what species might be present in the project area, and how each species must be addressed. They use DKeys to do an initial assessment for potential impacts on threatened and endangered species, and to determine whether additional review is needed. “[The Michigan Determination Key] has been really effective at reducing how frequently I need to follow up with the agencies to get more information,” says Masoud. “Sometimes [the agencies] leave vague descriptions, but in reviewing their questions and responses to the questions and the Determination Key, I can find out a lot more about the project…It’s been a big help, both for our review process on the DOT side, but also for the local agencies.”

Case Study: IPaC, North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)Michelle Hobgood, MEM, Environmental Specialist at NCDOT, is the business team lead for Project Atlas. Project Atlas consists of three applications that provide NCDOT, its Metropolitan and Rural Planning Organizations (MPOs and RPOs), and other planning organizations with a means of accessing the most current GIS data. There are currently 800 data layers available through Project Atlas, one of which is IPaC data. IPaC data, says Hobgood, is valuable to biologists, as well as for upper management, program managers, and project managers for providing information about the potential effects of new roads or expansions, bridge replacements, and similar projects.

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