Mitigation: A path to a better economy and healthier environment

Will McDow\

When something bad happens, we naturally want to make it better. When a child gets sick, a family member loses a job, a friend gets a divorce, we jump into action to mitigate the pain, the disappointment, the anguish. And sometimes, in the best case scenario, that bad thing we feared leads to something better – a new cure, a better job, a happier life.

The same is true in the natural world. Roads are built, transmission lines constructed, gas wells drilled. All can have negative impacts on our environment – our streams, wetlands and wildlife – but laws require these impacts to be mitigated, or lessened.

We can’t always avoid environmental impacts as our nation develops, but 30 years of experience provide lessons on effectively and efficiently mitigating these impacts, oftentimes presenting new economic opportunities.

Today, more than $4 billion in private capital is spent annually on mitigation projects to restore the environment. That’s larger than any Farm Bill program or other public expenditure on the environment.

Are we getting our money’s worth?

Mitigation has been an effective means of restoring the environment, but more is required. Streams, wetlands and wildlife habitat have been improved, but not enough. Private capital is flowing and local jobs are being created, but more is needed.

The efficiency and effectiveness of mitigation can and should be improved so that when harm is inflicted on the environment, restoration makes the environment better off overall, not equal or lesser.

Almost two years ago, our team took lessons learned from a growing industry of mitigation providers – from other ecosystem markets and from three decades of working with landowners, business leaders and policymakers – to design a new mitigation tool we call habitat exchanges.

In a habitat exchange, farmers, ranchers and other landowners can protect wildlife habitat and earn revenue by selling habitat credits to oil and gas companies, road builders and other developers who are seeking to mitigate unavoidable impacts of their operations. Exchanges utilize rigorous science to measure the actual quality of conservation and to ensure a net benefit to habitats and species.

The rollout of the first habitat exchange in the Great Plains – think Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico – was not without controversy. Among those asking questions were the mitigation bankers – the private companies who led the revolution in mitigation and created the regulatory environment that led to a multi-billion dollar market. They were concerned that we might undermine their business model, or worse, undermine an environmental program that took 30 years to build.

Of course, this is the last thing we wanted to do, since mitigation bankers provided a critical foundation for our habitat exchange work, and continue to be essential advisors and allies.

From conflict to cooperation

When I began working on mitigation issues 18 months ago, my very first meeting was in a San Francisco conference room, where I was joined by seven unhappy mitigation bankers. My colleagues and I spent most of the meeting explaining how habitat exchanges would not undermine their business and could create a new platform to which they could expand. At the end of the day, we had made some progress and agreed to keep the conversation going.

Two months later, we met again in Washington, D.C. for another series of meetings. Later that spring, I was invited to attend the National Mitigation Banking Association’s (NMBA) annual conference, where I met more mitigation bankers and was able to gain more perspective on the topic. The conversations and time together paid off, and I was asked to co-chair the Association’s Partnership Committee. I took all of this as a sign that the relationship was going well.

Over the last year, EDF has continued fostering this relationship and worked with the mitigation banking community to draft shared principles for mitigation, advocating together to Department of Interior officials, Fish and Wildlife Service staff and engaged partners to improve federal mitigation policy.

Just last month, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell released a road map for mitigation policy that largely reflected the shared principles and goals of EDF and mitigation providers.

This week, I attended my second annual mitigation banking conference as a newly elected member of the board. We don’t agree 100% of the time (does anyone?), but we recognize the opportunity to work together to improve federal mitigation rules and to prove new on-the-ground models. Through constant courtship, we are making significant progress to make mitigation more efficient and effective, to increase investment of private capital, to open markets to private landowners and, in the end, to make the environment better off.