Amidst environmental challenges and an increased need for infrastructure improvements, sustainable development becomes imperative to tackle the consequences of a growing human population, escalating resource demands, and the impact of human activities on the environment. The concept of mitigation banking is more prevalent than ever before, aiming to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental stewardship, ensuring that the impact of development is mitigated and natural habitat restored. Companies like Westervelt Ecological Services provide a bridge between conservation and restoration projects like mitigation banks and the ever-changing environmental regulatory requirements that can often delay much needed infrastructure and development projects.
MITIGATION BANKING: BALANCING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
Mitigation banking is a solution that enables the conservation, restoration, and creation of natural habitats to compensate for unavoidable ecological impacts caused by infrastructure and development projects. Banking provides a systematic framework for projects with associated environmental impacts to fulfill their regulatory obligations through credits that ensure the long-term sustainability of impacted ecosystems. Mitigation banks earn credits based on the amount and type of restoration on a site from regulatory agencies that approve the banks like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other state and local entities. Ownership of mitigation banks typically lies with the private entity or organization that initiates and develops the mitigation bank. However, the ownership structure can vary depending on the specific project, the regulations of the region, and the nature of the partnership involved; common scenarios of ownership can include non-profits, government entities, or public-private partnerships. The ownership and management arrangements of a bank can also vary depending on the specific terms and objectives of the bank’s establishment, but in most cases the project will be owned and managed by the bank owner or transferred to a Land Trust or Conservation Organization.
HOW MITIGATION BANKING WORKS
Mitigation banks often select sites that have undergone some level of environmental degradation or disturbance but still retain valuable ecological attributes. In the context of mitigation banking, the bank does not necessarily need to restore the entire site – existing habitats and ecological features on the site can be considered as part of the mitigation bank, and their conservation is an essential aspect of the overall restoration efforts. These existing habitats may include wetlands, forests, grasslands, or other natural ecosystems that have the potential to be enhanced and restored to a more ecologically functional state. Similarly, a conservation bank provides the same enhancement, restoration, and long-term management and protection as a mitigation bank, but is solely focused on species and habitat without a wetland component.
The restoration and enhancement activities conducted by the mitigation or conservation bank typically focus on improving and expanding these existing habitats to increase their ecological value. This can involve activities such as removing invasive species, planting native vegetation, creating buffer zones, improving water quality, or restoring hydrological functions.
The success criteria of any bank are evaluated on a project- by-project basis and are unique to each sites’ restoration and conservation goals. It is important to note that the SER International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration (hereafter the SER Standards) make clear that ecological restoration should never be used as a justification for degradation. Mitigation banking is compensatory mitigation to offset degradation due to development, but otherwise, mitigation banking uses all of the same tools and practices of ecological restoration, and the final “products” are ecologically restored wetlands with far-reaching ecological and social benefits.
“It’s really the permanence of mitigation projects that demonstrate their value to society – a bank must have a certain amount of funds – an endowment, to ensure that the site can be managed to a high standard in perpetuity. The site becomes permanently conserved under a conservation easement and once all credits are sold can no longer provide offsets to other projects” explains WES President, Travis Hemmen.
The process of mitigation banking involves several key steps. First, a developer must work with regulatory agencies to identify their project’s ecological impact. Regulatory agencies evaluate the potential impacts of a development project and specify the type and extent of mitigation necessary to compensate for the damage. The developer can then purchase credits from a pre- established and approved mitigation bank, buy into an In-Lieu Fee Program (ILF), or do permittee-responsible mitigation (PRM) to fulfill their mitigation obligation. Unlike mitigation banks established before any ecological impacts, ILF programs pool money from multiple projects and the funds go to future restoration and mitigation projects. In a PRM project, developers undertake the required restoration. Generally, PRM projects are done if no mitigation banks or ILF programs are available to meet regulatory requirements. Agencies prefer to use mitigation bank credits due to their anticipated restoration outcomes that ensures that habitats are being restored and protected before any infrastructure or development effects occur.
ENSURING HIGH STANDARDS IN MITIGATION BANKING
- To ensure that mitigation banking is done to the highest possible standards, the mitigation banking industry has arrived at several generally accepted key elements that must be considered:
- Ecological Expertise: Habitat restoration within mitigation banks require expertise in ecology, hydrology, and habitat management. Experienced professionals, including Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioners, are involved in planning, implementing, and monitoring restoration efforts.
- Site Selection and Design: Careful consideration is given to selecting appropriate sites for mitigation banks, prioritizing areas with the potential for successful restoration and emphasizing connectivity to existing ecosystems. The design of the restored habitat reflects the region’s natural ecological processes.
- Monitoring and Maintenance: Regular monitoring
is crucial to assess the success of restoration
efforts and ensure the long-term viability of the mitigation bank and is required to meet performance standards agreed upon by the regulatory agencies and mitigation banker. Effective management and maintenance practices are necessary to sustain the restored habitats and credit values.
- Capital Costs and Time: Land acquisition, construction costs, and conservation easement and endowment funds all must be deployed before the bank can be approved to sell credits to the open market. Unlike typical grant-funded restoration projects, mitigation banking is completed with private investment and typically does not see a return on investment for 5-10 years post-establishment.
MITIGATION BANKING: DEMONSTRATING SUCCESS
The Cosumnes Floodplain Mitigation Bank, located in Sacramento County, California, is a prime example of successful restoration and mitigation efforts. Spanning nearly 500 acres, this mitigation bank is a collaborative project led by Westervelt Ecological Services (WES), with support and approval from the USACE, US Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Bank was approved to sell mosaic wetland, riparian, and shaded riverine aquatic credits for impacts associated with state, federal, and local permitted projects. Established and approved in 2011, the bank received credit releases over the next five years as performance standards were met. The bank sold out of credits in 2022, with approved credits allocated to various permitted flood control, military, transportation, commercial and residential, recreation, and utility improvement projects in the surrounding area over the previous five years.
One of the key ecological benefits of the Cosumnes Floodplain Mitigation Bank is its role in preserving and restoring critical wetland and floodplain habitats. Through strategic planning and restoration efforts, the Cosumnes Floodplain Mitigation Bank has successfully expanded and enhanced wetland habitats in the area, resulting in increased biodiversity and improved wildlife habitat connectivity. The restored wetlands provide breeding and foraging grounds for a variety of water-dependent bird species, including the threatened Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni), sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), and numerous waterfowl species.
The Bank has also contributed to flood protection and water resource management for the surrounding Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties. By restoring floodplain connectivity, the bank helps alleviate flooding risks during periods of high-water flow. The floodplain acts as a natural sponge, absorbing excess water and reducing the pressure on levees and developed areas downstream. The site is owned and managed by WES, with the Sacramento Valley Conservancy holding the conservation easement.
Overall, the Cosumnes Floodplain Mitigation Bank stands as a successful example of collaborative restoration and mitigation efforts, requiring engagement with local stakeholders in the surrounding community, neighboring landowners, scientists, regulatory agencies, and non- profits. The project showcases the potential for balancing economic development with environmental stewardship, emphasizing the importance of preserving and restoring critical ecosystems for the benefit of both nature and human communities.
TRADITIONAL ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION CHALLENGES
While conventional non-profit ecological restoration projects and private mitigation bank projects both have positive intentions and contribute to environmental conservation, there are some key differences in their approaches. It is important to note that private mitigation
banks align closely with the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) Standards, incorporating essential principles to ensure effective and standards-based restoration.
- Stakeholder Engagement: The SER Standards emphasize stakeholder engagement as a foundational principle for ecological restoration. Private mitigation bank projects typically prioritize robust engagement with local communities, scientists, policymakers, and landowners from the outset. This approach ensures that all relevant perspectives and knowledge systems are considered, fostering strong local buy-in and knowledge sharing.
- Planning, Assessment, and Monitoring: The SER Standards advocate for comprehensive planning, baseline assessments, and long-term monitoring to guide ecological restoration projects. Mitigation banks adhere to these principles by conducting thorough assessments before initiating restoration activities and implementing ongoing monitoring to evaluate project success and adapt strategies over time.
- Biodiversity Focus: The SER Standards require ecological restoration projects to support biodiversity conservation and restoration. Mitigation banks actively address this requirement by not only rehabilitating physical structures, but also prioritizing the restoration of native species and habitats, enhancing overall ecosystem health and resilience.
- Adaptive Management: Adaptability is a crucial aspect of ecological restoration, and the SER Standards strongly encourage the incorporation of adaptive management practices. Mitigation banks align with this approach, regularly reassessing restoration strategies and making necessary adjustments to achieve desired outcomes in dynamic and changing environmental conditions.
- Funding and Resources: While both non-profit ecological restoration projects and mitigation banks may face funding constraints, the mitigation banking approach often secures funding through the sale of compensatory mitigation credits to developers. This dedicated funding stream allows mitigation banks to invest in long-term maintenance, adequate staffing, and necessary equipment and technology.
By highlighting how private mitigation bank projects incorporate the SER Standards and their key principles, we can recognize the value of mitigation banking in promoting a restoration standards-based approach to compensatory mitigation. Mitigation banks offer a systematic, science- based, and collaborative approach that ensures ecological restoration efforts are robust, effective, and sustainable in the long run.
In thinking about the various project types, Hemmen states “if we want to see progress in terms of meaningful contributions to restoration and conservation, we must employ all possible strategies and stakeholders. Non- profits, voluntary projects, in-lieu fee programs, mitigation banks- all types of restoration programs and implementors play a vital role in conserving and restoring habitat across the country.”
MITIGATION BANKING AND ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION: HEALING THE NATURAL WORLD
Both mitigation banking and ecological restoration projects aim to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems. Where mitigation banking stands out is their direct offset to the ecological impacts of development projects. Mitigation banking and ecological restoration play vital roles in addressing the environmental challenges posed by development activities. By adhering to high standards, involving ecological expertise, and ensuring effective monitoring and maintenance, we can achieve successful outcomes in both mitigation banking and ecological restoration, fostering a harmonious coexistence between human progress and the preservation of our natural world.
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