BATON ROUGE, La. – Wetlands mitigation banking has established a track record of success in restoring and preserving crucial ecosystems in many states during the past several decades. Now the proven system is positioned to grow and expand even faster, combining the best of strong environmental regulation and oversight with sound science and private sector innovation and adaptability.
Commercial development relies heavily on mitigation banks in states such as Florida, where population growth requires land and much of the land is environmentally vulnerable, laced with creeks, rivers, wetlands and woods.
Any time a Florida project – commercial, retail, residential, public or private – needs to offset unavoidable impact, they can turn to one of more than 60 mitigation banks in the state, to purchase available credits. Revenue from the sale of the credits goes to create, restore, enhance or preserve environmentally sensitive land in a bank site.
For example, one land bank in metro Orlando, the Wekiva Mitigation Bank, preserves critical freshwater habitat around Rock Springs Run feeding into the Wekiva River, which holds the distinction of being a federally designated Wild and Scenic River. More than 70 impact permittees have purchased credits in that bank site since 2005, for projects including schools, business centers, office buildings, an airport, subdivisions and numerous roadways including the new Wekiva Parkway.
A mitigation bank is a piece of land that has potential, and natural attributes, but may have been altered or damaged in the past, perhaps through ditching and drainage, logging, farming, ranching overuse or abuse that changed the landscape. To restore the site to function as part of a healthy ecosystem as nature intended takes time and money, planning and preparation. Mitigation banking is a proven way to achieve those goals, tackling the complex challenge by combining strengths of both the public and private sectors.
Mitigation bank sites that receive federal and regional approvals and certification are funded by investors, including developers, a technique that began in a small way in the 1980s and 1990s. If a development project, such as construction of a major highway, pipeline or infrastructure, is unable to avoid the taking or altering of wetlands, it may “mitigate,” or offset that loss, by investing in restoration and conservation of an approved mitigation bank site. By doing so, development itself helps pay for restoring critical habitat and ecosystems, furthering a laudable federal goal of achieving “no net loss of wetlands.”
One of the pioneers in wetlands mitigation banking, EcoSystem Renewal LLC., has successfully helped restore vulnerable sites throughout Florida, Louisiana and Texas, particularly along the fragile Gulf Coast. The company based in Baton Rouge, La. has developed a successful turn-key approach to oversee projects from start to finish and is now ramping up efforts to assist more public and private landowners and developers in navigating the highly regulated sector.
EcoSystem Managing Director Danny Moran, with more than 30 years of experience in the mitigation field, land management and environmental restoration, says one of the company’s latest goals is to help educate the public about the largely unheralded benefits of mitigation as an environmental and conservation success story.
Moran says the tremendous gains in conservation and restoration achieved through mitigation banking deserve to be more widely known and recognized.
EcoSystem Renewal alone has overseen the rehabilitation of thousands of acres throughout the South and is taking on new projects regularly. The company was recently selected to co-manage East Bay Farms LLC, the sponsor of the Gulf Coastal Plans Mitigation Bank in south Texas. The 1,957-acre site is a fully approved wetlands mitigation bank in the Galveston Region and has a variety of credits available. The “credits” are purchased by developers to offset their own projects once the work is permitted and unavoidable losses are calculated. Every step of the process is governed by strict regulations to meet the Clean Water Act and other environmental provisions overseen by agencies such as the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Moran, maximum benefits flow to the environment, society and the private sector only when a mitigation job is done right. “The biological, hydrological and engineering expertise of our restoration teams is used to recreate historic conditions and to enhance biological and wildlife communities,” Moran says. To achieve a client’s environmental objective, he says, EcoSystem Renewal employs “a unique balance of sophisticated science, regulatory knowledge and capital investment.”
The integrated approach by EcoSystem Renewal allows the company to manage or oversee every aspect of a project, from initial market and site analysis to design, construction and implementation, with long-term operational considerations baked into the process from the start. Mitigation banks establish endowment funds, for example, to ensure that once a site has been properly restored with the right blends of native foliage, vegetation and hydrology, the property can be well maintained and monitored.
Gulf Coastal Plains Mitigation Bank in the Galveston Bay watershed is being restored to historic freshwater and intermediate salt marshes that existed before the property was converted to cropland decades ago. Surrounded by the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the site is within the Mississippi migratory flyway, and once fully restored will add additional prime resting and foraging space for annual fall and spring bird migrations. The open land will be protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement.
While a successful restoration project can be a decisive win-win for the environment, landowners, and public and private entities, it takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail at every step to meet the strict regulatory and legal requirements that govern the process, according to Moran. The reputation of the mitigation banking sector is at stake with every new project and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other agencies rely heavily on firms with a track record of success, such as EcoSystem Renewal LLC.