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Ecological restoration goes to Washington

Restoration recovers natural areas to healthy condition and function. It’s also a good business opportunity that needs government backing.

This story first appeared on Ecosystem Marketplace

Ecological restoration is the art and science of helping degraded natural areas recover to healthy condition and function. It’s also, as it turns out, a good business opportunity.

The sector emerged in the early 1970s, after centuries of extraction and consumption of natural resources in the United States had degraded the country’s forests, rivers and streams to a dangerous extent, sparking the creation of laws requiring polluters to clean up their messes. This new push for ecological restoration also created jobs for engineers, surveyors, hydrologists and foresters as well as opportunities for investors, construction companies and others who specialize in rehabilitating nature.

Altogether, the restoration industry generates an estimated $25 billion in economic output each year, and employs more people in the United States than coal mining, logging or steel production. Restoration professionals have their own industry association, the Ecological Restoration Business Association (ERBA), which advocates for environmental policy and regulatory frameworks that open the door for companies to make a business out of conservation.

This month, leaders in the industry are heading to Washington, D.C., for an event convened by ERBA that aims to position ecological restoration as the answer to several big challenges facing the United States right now, including much-needed investment in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and protecting communities and their assets from disasters such as the one that hit Houston this summer.

Public awareness of the connection between weakened resilience to natural disasters and the neglect of our 'green infrastructure' perhaps never has been higher.

For ERBA, the policy conference is an opportunity for the industry to make its case. Congress is slated to work on an infrastructure package this spring, and public awareness of the connection between weakened resilience to natural disasters and the neglect of our "green infrastructure" perhaps never has been higher, following historic flooding in Houston and the most expensive hurricane season in history in 2017.

Project developers are also eager to make their case to private investors interested in conservation; the restoration industry has a deep bench when it comes to business management experience. Mitigation banking, a subsector of ecological restoration, has posted a history of reliable demand and strong performance in meeting or exceeded projected internal rates of return for investors.

Invest now to save later

Congress is expected to begin work on a major infrastructure bill in early 2018, and a new round of civil works funding in March under the 2018 Water Resources Development Act. Both could spell opportunity for the ecological restoration industry: After all, restoration companies have years of experience working with developers and regulators to ensure that environmental permits are issued as quickly and smoothly as possible. Having a third-party entity carry out restoration and compensatory mitigation (the main source of business for the restoration industry), rather than the developer being themselves responsible for reversing negative impacts, also has been shown to be the fastest route to meeting resource impact requirements.

"Policy-makers must look for innovative procurement mechanisms to be used in conjunction with the increased level of private-sector capital focused on providing high-quality ecological restoration," explained Elliott Bouillion, president and CEO at RES. "With sound scientific methodologies, robust implementation standards and reliable financial assurances, the true public benefits of flood and storm surge reduction, infrastructure asset protection and community resiliency can be realized sooner and with greater effectiveness."

A key goal for ERBA this month is making sure that elected officials understand this. The Trump administration took steps in early 2017 to revoke or re-examine executive actions and policies supportive of mitigation passed under President Barack Obama, although anti-mitigation rhetoric seems to have been toned down in recent months. That is in part thanks to ERBA’s efforts, staff at the Department of Interior told Ecosystem Marketplace, to convince Washington that the industry offers a way to streamline regulatory oversight while still delivering results for the environment.

It’s important for the ecological restoration industry and its members to remain relevant during so much political change in D.C.

"It’s important for the ecological restoration industry and its members to remain relevant during so much political change in D.C.," said Travis Hemmen, vice president of business acquisition at Westervelt Ecological Services and an ERBA board member. "Through this conference, we must continue to educate elected officials and key staff about the economic and environmental significance of our work and learn how to respond to changes in government regulation."

So what does a good infrastructure package look like for the ecological restoration industry? "It should include permitting reform and water infrastructure as top priorities," said Sara Johnson, executive director of ERBA. "Proactive investments in natural systems’ resiliency now will avoid spending later."

Catastrophic flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in the summer of 2017 has underscored that point. As communities cope with increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, investments in green infrastructure such as rehabilitating coastal wetland or removing decades’ worth of built-up fuels from forests can complement built infrastructure to improve resilience.

"Our members have the skill set and can mobilize under improved federal and state policies that prioritize investment in these natural systems and defenses, to reduce needed government spending after the fact," said Johnson. "Our businesses are also able to partner and work with communities on creative financing to accelerate government spending on resource programs, bypassing regulatory and process delays to deliver robust ecological solutions sooner."

ERBA also would like to see reforms to the environmental review and permitting processes that accompany new infrastructure and development, including harmonizing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers standards nationwide, speeding up assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), more clarity on when compensatory mitigation is required under the Endangered Species Act, and a new reform and oversight taskforce to make recommendations to reduce delays in USACE civil works projects driven by Section 408 of the Clean Water Act (PDF).

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