Interior Department takes aim at key environmental mitigation policy. Here's what's at stake.

Eric Holst

The next policy battle in the Trump administration's war on the environment is ramping up – and this time they're targeting a critical mitigation policy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced a plan to review and potentially revise net benefit goals in its compensatory mitigation policy. It came on the very anniversary of a presidential memorandum that created the standards two years ago.

The move follows a White House executive order to modify or rescind such policies throughout the U.S. Department of Interior to facilitate energy development in ecologically sensitive areas on private and public lands.

This potential policy change would translate into lost jobs, dollars, habitat and ecosystems. It would put the short-term interests of a few over the long-term interests of the American public.

Move jeopardizes $25-billion industry sector

Mitigation banking is a $25-billion sector supported by private capital that funds environmental restoration projects to offset impacts from nearby infrastructure and development.

The projects are paid for by companies in the energy, real estate and transportation industries that disturb ecosystems. The system has been in place since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush established a national "no net loss" goal for wetlands.

Today, the mitigation banking marketplace is a rapidly growing industry that effectively protects our natural resources while offering several important side benefits.

Resilience against extreme weather could be weakened

Mitigation policies make sure that new roads don't cut off streams, new housing developments don't fill wetlands, and new energy projects don't destroy habitat for endangered species without reparation. It maintains clean water supplies and access to recreational opportunities.

Importantly, projects supported by mitigation policies also help protect communities against hurricanes, floods and wildfires that destroy homes and lives. By investing in wetlands, prairies and other habitat, these projects help us become more resilient to extreme weather.

After nearly 30 years of successful wetland banking, there are countless examples of mitigation projects that bring multiple benefits.

In the Mississippi River Delta, for example, marsh and wetland restoration projects are offsetting impacts from the 2010 BP oil spill through rehabilitation and enhancement of degraded sites. These projects now help to protect coastal Gulf communities from hurricanes, floods and even oil spills – all key priorities today.

Wildlife loses big if "net benefit" is scrapped

In the wildfire-prone West, meanwhile, many states are working to restore the sagebrush ecosystem for the imperiled greater sage-grouse and other at-risk wildlife through advanced mitigation programs that include net benefit standards.

Nevada's state-led sage-grouse mitigation program, for example, facilitates restoration projects that give credit buyers more confidence that sufficient habitat will be available for the bird even in the event of wildfires – one of the largest threats to sage-grouse success.

Ultimately, net benefit goals help protect a species' last remaining stronghold habitat, which can keep wildlife off the Endangered Species List and on the path to recovery. Erasing these goals puts all of that at risk.

Thousands of jobs could be undermined

Importantly, the restoration industry also employs 126,000 Americans, including ecologists, conservation planners, equipment operators, engineers and financial experts. That's more than in coal mining, logging or steel production.

By undermining mitigation, many of those jobs could be jeopardized. Such losses come in addition to diminishing natural storm barriers and protection of imperiled species – all things Americans need and want.

And yet, the Trump administration continues to target policies that protect public health and the environment by replacing science and economics with politics.

Reversing net benefit goals for mitigation would be a short-sighted move that would ultimately weaken conservation outcomes for both people and wildlife.


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