Unflattering stats on top state contractor pulled
BY DAN KANE – DKANE@NEWSOBSERVER.COM
Five months ago, Michael Ellison, the state official hired to shore up public confidence in stream and wetland restorations, gave a slide presentation on the evolution of the practice at a trade association conference. One of his slides pointed to the difficulty in getting these projects right. It showed $4 million largely paid to fix projects, with roughly a fifth of the money related to revisiting the work of one engineering firm.
Such information was no surprise to those in the room because the history of stream and wetland restoration is full of trial and error. But officials with that one firm, a prominent contractor in state government circles, did not like what they saw. A top state environmental official sided with their complaint.
Today, that information has been removed from the presentation, and Ellison has a new boss in an agency that he had been running by himself as deputy director.
Some who do business with the program, or monitor its performance, suspect both moves reflect the state’s unwillingness to admit problems within a restoration program that paves the way for billions of dollars in development. A three-part News & Observer series in April 2011 found millions of dollars had been spent fixing these projects.
“DENR management ought to be supporting the person who is reforming the program, not kowtowing to the firms that were responsible for the bad projects,” said John Preyer, a co-founder of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based builder of restored streams and wetlands.
Martin Doyle, a Duke University professor who has questioned the science behind stream restorations, said it didn’t make sense to promote (Suzanne) Klimek given the program had been operating with one person in charge for years. “I don’t know why you would bring in a new director to continue the work that Mike Ellison has started,” Doyle said. “If Mike Ellison has instituted changes that you like, then why don’t you make him director?”
Actions called unrelated
Ellison, who had been the leader of the Ecosystem Enhancement Program for more than a year, now reports to Suzanne Klimek, a longtime administrator in the program.
David Knight, the deputy environmental secretary who removed the offending slide and promoted Klimek, said the two actions are unrelated. He said the cost information needed to be removed because it wasn’t fair to the engineering firms identified. He also said he had planned to promote Klimek – before the offending presentation occurred – as acting director because there was too much work for one person to oversee.
She commutes to Raleigh from Asheville, where she had been working as a consultant. Her pay increased by 9.5 percent to $86,215.
“It was not because of this incident,” Knight said. “It was already in motion.”
Ellison, through an EEP spokesman, declined to be interviewed. Emails show Knight told Ellison that Knight would handle questions regarding Ellison’s presentation. The spokesman, Tad Boggs, later produced a statement from Ellison that was heavily edited, and excluded information related to the problems associated with stream restorations.
Ellison came to the EEP in late 2010, as the N&O was investigating long-standing problems with the ecosystem program. His EEP bio said he has more than 25 years experience in the field, and as a consultant and contractor completed more than “250 stream and wetland restoration projects and restored over 30,000 acres of forest and prairie habitats throughout the United States.”
Data provided to the N&O for its series showed the EEP and its predecessor agencies were struggling to produce restorations that held together and finished on schedule. More than 30 percent of the stream restorations had needed repairs, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Project records showed some of the issues stemmed from engineering firm designs that did not properly account for upstream development and other land conditions.
A delayed reaction
Email correspondence and interviews with other attendees of the stream conference show no one raised any objections to Ellison’s presentation when he gave it. But Knight later received complaints from Kimley-Horn & Associates, the engineering firm that had the highest amount of costs associated with its designs, and from Kathryn Sawyer Westcott, a lobbyist who represents the American Council of Engineering Companies of North Carolina.
Sawyer said Kimley-Horn and other members thought the slide was “incredibly disparaging” to their work. It lacked context in terms of what period of time the costs covered, whether the change orders were the fault of the engineering firms and how much total work the firms had done.
The slide showed close to $800,000 spent on change orders for projects designed by Kimley-Horn. Sawyer said Kimley-Horn has probably done the largest amount of restoration work among engineering firms for the program so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that its firm is tied to the highest amount in change order costs. Boggs said the change orders reflect 11 years of additional work performed by construction firms on stream and wetland projects.
Those who attended the presentation say Ellison did not disparage any firms. Ellison said in an email to Knight the slide illustrated how “crude design approaches” for streams can result in additional construction costs, but he added that some of the costs reflected in the slide were not the result of bad designs.
For more than a decade, the state has been selecting engineering firms for stream and wetland restoration work by drawing from a preferred list instead of putting the work out to bid. Kimley-Horn had been on that list from at least as far back as 2002 until last year, when the number of firms was cut to a decade-low 12.
These firms had been working under a construction method that often left the state holding the bag if projects went bad. After the N&O’s series, the state legislature passed a law that shifts most of the risk to the companies that do the work.
Ellison has been working to deploy the new law, improve financial accounting and devise new technical standards that better reflect scientific findings.
Preyer, Doyle and John Hutton, vice president of the Wildlands Engineering firm in Charlotte, said Ellison has made good strides on those goals.
“From an industry standpoint, he’s done a really good job with the reforms and in reaching out to the scientific community as well,” Hutton said.
They now worry that Ellison will be reined in. Knight said they shouldn’t be.
“I have a positive attitude toward Michael,” Knight said. “He’s done good work.”
Army Corps of Engineers presents plans for West Bank wetlands projects
Published: Wednesday, August 01, 2012, 10:15 PM
By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
The Army Corps of Engineers Tuesday night unveiled a variety of wetland-restoration projects that will serve as mitigation for the environmental impact caused by building levees along the West Bank in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The projects would restore more than 885 acres of wetlands on the water side of the levee system, including filling in several abandoned oilfield canals in Jean Lafitte National Wildlife refuge, restoration of 85 acres of wetlands in Yankee Pond along Bayou Segnette, and restoration of 643 acres of bottomland hardwood wetlands and swamp at Lake Boeuf, near Raceland in Lafourche Parish. The mitigation plan also will eventually include restoration of wetlands in privately owned “mitigation banks,” which will compensate for habitat damage on the protected side of levees.
Corps officials did not provide a price tag for the West Bank projects during Tuesday’s meeting at the Westwego Ernest J. Tassin Senior Center.
However, at a January meeting in Vicksburg, Miss., New Orleans corps planners estimated spending about $252 million on restoration projects resulting from construction of the 160-mile levee system, including $79 million on east bank projects and $173 million on the West Bank.
The projects in the corps’ tentatively selected plan were chosen from more than 400 possible mitigation sites, many suggested by community members.
The projects will compensate for damage to natural areas caused by building the West Closure Complex, Mississippi River Co-located levees, Eastern Tie-In, Harvey to Westwego Levee, Lake Cataouatche Levee, Bayou Segnette Floodgate Complex, the Western Tie-In, and government-furnished borrow sites in Plaquemines, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes.
Corps officials discussed the restoration program in general terms before attempting to break Tuesday night’s audience of about 50 people into smaller groups to discuss individual projects.
Another idea in Jesuit Bend
But the owner of a large tract at Jesuit Bend in Plaquemines Parish objected, saying the format deprived the audience of hearing about his alternative to the corps plan.
George Howard is president of Restoration Systems LLC, a North Carolina company that operates mitigation banks and develops property as mitigation for private owners and government agencies nationwide. He said the company has developed 25,000 acres in nine states as mitigation projects.
Howard’s proposal would redevelop open water areas of his property as wetlands, which he said could be done more cheaply than the corps and would help protect Plaquemines communities from hurricane storm surges. He said it’s not necessary to treat his property as a mitigation bank.
Elizabeth Behrens, corps environmental manager for the levee mitigation plan, said the agency has chosen projects it believes best match damage done in the levee construction. Many of the smaller projects will be in or adjacent to the Barataria Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park because of damage done to park lands.
Those projects avoid the cost of buying land that’s already part of the park, or will result in purchased land being added to the park, she said.
Other projects were selected as a response to damage to the environmentally sensitive Bayou aux Carpes wetland area, which is protected by a provision of the federal Clean Water Act, that occurred during construction of the West Closure Complex at the junction of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Harvey Canal.
She said Howard’s property is still eligible for participation in the mitigation bank portion of the restoration program, whose projects won’t be chosen until later this year.
‘Geocrib’ project under way
The Lake Boeuf project, chosen to mitigate for general impacts to bottomland hardwood forests and swamps, was picked as the best environmental project of its size in the area, she said. The land bought for that project will eventually be turned over to the state’s nearby Lake Boeuf Wildlife Management area, and thus available for public use, Behrens said.
Another 50-acre project, already well under way, is at the “Geocrib” area separating the eastern edge of Lake Salvador from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Jefferson Parish.
The individual projects will be aimed at rebuilding wet or dry patches of bottomland hardwood forests containing cypress and tupelo trees, freshwater marshes, or swamps, based on the damage to each type of habitat by the levee projects.
The mitigation bank projects will involve the corps buying “credits” from an authorized bank located within the West Bank levee area. The corps will issue a request for proposals to buy credits from the banks equivalent to the acreage it determines is needed to be rebuilt.
Comments on the mitigation proposals can be made by calling the corps’ construction impacts hotline, 1.877.427.0345; on the web at www.nolaenvironmental.gov, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the projects, contact Patricia Leroux, Project Management; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers;
Environmental Planning and Compliance Branch; P.O. Box 60267;
New Orleans, LA 70160-0267; or by phone at 862.1544; or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Mark Schleifstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3327.
© 2012 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.
Fat private-equity investment buoys restoration industry
Paul Quinlan, E&E reporter
Greenwire: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
A private-equity firm has raised $181 million for wetland restoration, in what industry insiders are touting as a sign that for-profit ecosystem revival is finally coming of age.
At issue is the business of mitigation banking — reviving degraded swamps, bogs, marshes and other habitat to generate “credits” that can be sold to developers. Such transactions are aimed at satisfying regulators who require developers who damage or destroy wetlands to restore or protect habitat elsewhere.
Wetland mitigation banking has been around for some 30 years, but it has been slow to live up to its hype that it is a market-based solution to ecological ills caused by development in environmentally sensitive areas. Green groups question the ecological value of restored wetlands, and business analysts fret about mitigation banking’s regulatory uncertainty and uneven demand.
So the $181 million raised for Baltimore-based Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP) is being celebrated by promoters of mitigation banking. EIP beat its $150 million target with large investments from typically risk-averse sources: a large university endowment, foundations and pensions — including $30 million from the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board, the state’s teacher pension.
“I think we’re probably at a breakaway point, if you will, in terms of institutional capital understanding of this space,” said Fred Danforth, a managing partner of EIP who founded the company in 2006.
Danforth discovered mitigation banking after retiring in 2002 from a Boston-based investment firm he helped found in 1987, Capital Resource Partners. An fly-fisherman and trustee of the Nature Conservancy in Montana, Danforth waded into his first restoration project when he bought a 1,900-acre former ranch in the Blackfoot Valley of western Montana.
The property’s streams and wetlands were “unbelievably degraded” from decades of ranching and poor management, he recalled recently. So he and others went to work, he said, rebuilding 10,000 linear feet of streams to the correct depths and widths and restoring 260 acres of wetlands.
“I became fascinated by the opportunity to do this important work and overlay a business model that could generate more conservation and more restoration at a real significant scale,” he said.
Danforth assembling experts from the environmental and conservation worlds to form EIP and began fundraising. The first fund closed in 2008 after Danforth raised $26 million — about one-seventh the size of his second fund.
The $181 million haul raised eyebrows across the industry.
“It’s good to see big-time institutional capital come into it, because we want to see the industry professionalized — not a lot of mom-and-pops,” said George Howard, co-founder and president of Raleigh, N.C.-based Restoration Systems, which banks 25,000 acres of wetlands and 60 miles of waterways in half a dozen states.
Randy Wilgis, president of both the National Mitigation Banking Association board and Environmental Banc & Exchange, a mitigation bank headquartered in Owings Mills, Md., said, “It’s just exciting, and it validates the entire market.”
Danforth’s strategy involves acquiring large tracts of degraded but ecologically valuable lands in areas where development — and thus demand for offsetting credits — is expected to be high and regulations requiring wetland mitigation are strictly enforced. Danforth won’t discuss specific figures, such as the costs of restoration, permitting and maintenance or the price of credits.
Generally, EIP expects to acquire 10 to 15 properties priced between $5 million and $20 million and ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 acres, he said.
The heart of wetland mitigation has traditionally been major highway projects, and that is expected to continue, but Danforth expects other projects are on the horizon.
“If you think about pipelines and power lines and the siting of renewable energy … mining, oil and shale gas — all have significant impacts,” he said.
Regs, shale drilling spur business
Much of the recent growth for mitigation banking was spurred by the release in 2008 of new federal regulations governing mitigation banking that industry officials say brought clarity and predictability by laying out performance standards.
But that same year brought the collapse of the real estate market and a corresponding plunge in demand for mitigation credits. This put many small mitigation banks out of business and forced even the largest industry players into a holding pattern.
“It took a lot of the nonprofessionals out, which we welcome,” Howard said. “You had developers jumping into it to make a quick pop.”
The 2008 rules handed another gift to the industry: They indicated that mitigation banking was the preferred method for offsetting wetlands destruction, trumping both the do-it-yourself and in-lieu-fee options also available to developers.
Experts, meanwhile, predicted that demand for credits would rise because of shale drilling and pipeline building and construction projects funded by the 2009 federal stimulus. Applications for new mitigation banks began rolling into the Army Corps of Engineers, which handles Clean Water Act permitting for wetland projects.
Companies such as Resource Environmental Solutions of Baton Rouge, La., and Houston’s Mitigation Solutions are among companies actively pursuing the shale mitigation market. Restoration Systems sponsored the first bank in Pennsylvania targeting mostly gas-line construction associated with shale drilling, Howard said.
“There’s still plenty of growth in mitigation banking, even in a stagnant or declining economy,” Howard said.
The Army Corps doesn’t compile complete mitigation bank statistics from all 38 of its districts. But Dave Urban, EIP’s director of operations and past president of the National Mitigation Banking Association, keeps an informal and incomplete tally of the number of federal bank applications approved: 10 in 2008, 68 in 2009, 78 in 2010, 86 in 2011 and 38 so far this year.
“In 2009 and 2010, you just started seeing a flood of mitigation bank applications,” Urban said. “Now I think you’re seeing a lessening of application because, I think, people realize that in spite of a rule, the process is still balled up in local issues.”
‘No net loss’
The bottom line in the wetland-mitigation business is that swamps are valuable.
Once seen as mosquito-breeding nuisances, wetlands are now protected as sponges for recharging aquifers, filters for polluted stormwater and collection basins for floods. They are also nurseries for multibillion-dollar fisheries and breeding grounds for migratory waterfowl.
For too long, wetland values went unrecognized. Most landowners sought to drain or fill them. By the 1980s, the wetland area in the United States had shrunk to 53 percent of its size when the nation was founded.
Soon enough, plugging drainage ditches and returning these lands to their previous, swampy condition would become brisk business.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush declared a “no net loss” policy toward wetlands. Enforcement by federal agencies opened the door to mitigation banking by requiring that marshes and other wetlands destroyed had to be replaced with new ones either created or restored.
A 1990 memorandum of agreement between the Army Corps and U.S. EPA followed that laid out guidelines for determining the type and level of mitigation necessary.
Developers began to set aside portions of their projects, where they would attempt to create or restore wetlands. Studies found these tiny, scattershot restoration efforts typically performed poorly. They were also difficult to inspect.
Oversight problems were highlighted in a 2005 report by the former General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), which found that the Army Corps had failed to check up on mitigation projects done by real estate developers to offset resource destruction.
The 2008 regulations are aimed at solving those problems. They require developers confronting wetlands to strive to avoid destruction and then to minimize impacts. If destruction is “unavoidable,” rules say, builders can look to mitigation.
Industry promotes legislative fix
But mitigation bankers say there are still regulatory uncertainties.
One of the biggest headaches, they say, involves uncertainty over where a bank must be located to service a particular project. Regulations call for a “watershed approach,” meaning banks must be within the same watershed. The methods used to define a watershed can be inconsistent and vary among 38 Army Corps districts, according to the National Mitigation Banking Association, the industry’s trade group.
The industry is also pushing legislation sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in the Senate (S. 664) and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) in the House (H.R. 2058) to allow the sale of mitigation credits to be treated as capital gains for tax purposes. Neither bill has gained traction.
Distrust still lingers among some environmentalists who note the poor early track record of the mitigation banking industry and argue that banking can, without proper oversight, encourage wetland destruction.
“I think banking has a lot of potential promise, but the combination of the profit motive and the science just all have a tendency to work against genuine replacement of the wetland functions,” said Jan Goldman-Carter, wetlands and water resources counsel at the National Wildlife Federation. “The bank is essentially paying for wetlands destruction somewhere else.”
Urban, an environmental engineer and former Army Corps permit officer, says the cure to poor oversight is greater transparency. Boundaries of watersheds and siting of mitigation banks are dependent on factors ranging from flora and fauna to soil types and are not always conducive to simple rules.
“There’s some people who advocate simple solutions, but simple solutions are not always the right solutions,” he said.
“It keeps all boiling down to transparency,” Urban added. “We want the administrative process to be transparent and to include people like us who have expertise in this world who could be helpful.”
RALEIGH — There has been a growing mantra among state lawmakers, environmentalists and others to privatize the production of restored streams and wetlands to offset the impacts of development.
They believe that private businesses in a market environment would produce better projects at less cost.
But for Raleigh residents new legislation aimed at furthering that goal could lead to the city eating more than $1 million spent on sites it has purchased for environmental projects. The legislation also would force the city to deal with what is now a monopoly – one business providing the pollution-reducing projects in the Raleigh area.
“I don’t think the bill’s sponsors realize some of the unintended consequences,” said Kenneth Waldroup, Raleigh’s assistant public utilities director.
The bill’s chief sponsor, state Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and former city council member, said he was unaware of the city’s concerns. The council recently voted to oppose the legislation.
The legislation is the latest development in a continuing battle between the public and private sectors over what is the best way to produce restoration that protects the environment while keeping development and road building from slowing to a standstill. The federal Clean Water Act requires the damages from development be offset by restoration projects that improve water quality.
Waldroup said he generally agrees with a market-based approach to restoration, but says the market isn’t in a position to work for Raleigh. There is only one mitigation bank providing stream and wetland restoration in the Neuse River sub-basin that includes the city.
It could be several years before a second enters the market, he said.
He also said it’s unfair to exclude municipalities from buying restoration from the state, while allowing the state and federal governments to have access to it. The state Ecosystem Enhancement Program provides the restoration for a fee based on the amount of damage a road or development would create.
The city began developing its own restoration three years ago when state lawmakers first made a run at excluding municipalities from buying restoration from the state. The city has purchased conservation easements on two properties at a cost of $1.1 million that it plans to use to offset water quality losses caused by the construction of a new reservoir. The conservation can be used to offset development damages.
But that reservoir on the Little River may not get built. If that happens, under Hunt’s bill Waldroup thinks the city would not have the option of selling the conservation to someone else.
One of the biggest mitigation bankers in the state is Restoration Systems, which is based in Raleigh. John Preyer, co-founder and chief operating officer, said he understood Waldroup’s concerns, but private businesses such as his will struggle to survive if they have to compete against government programs not as focused on the bottom line.
He also predicted mitigation banks will quickly move into underserved areas in a competitive field. His company is looking to produce stream and wetland restoration that would serve Raleigh and the surrounding area.
Three years ago, he said his company began producing nitrogen-reduction projects locally to offset development-related pollution. Within a year another competitor jumped into the market and a third soon followed.
Hunt said he wants to nurture mitigation banks by taking away some of the government competition. His bill does not stop the state from producing restoration for its needs.
He said the businesses would be more accountable and efficient. If a project went bad, they would have to fix it on their own dime.
“They would be responsible and they’d have to go back and do it themselves,” he said.
That hasn’t been the case with many stream restorations done by the state that needed repairs. In a three-part series, “Washed Away,” The News & Observer found more than 30, and in many cases issues were raised about the design or construction. But the state had only docked two contractors for construction problems.
State records suggest those who produce mitigation and then sell it to the state have a better track record. They have fewer erosion problems with stream restorations and performed slightly better than the state in a recent environmental audit of stream and wetland projects.
But that picture is dimmed by the fact that the state did not require private providers to report such repairs until two years ago.
Another question is the scientific research that questions whether stream restoration improves water quality. State legislative leaders say they are concerned about spending money on restoration without proof goals are being met.
Legislative leaders say Hunt’s legislation is likely to become the vehicle to respond to concerns about the quality of stream and wetland projects. Hunt said he will listen to the city’s concerns, and expects his bill will likely be reworked before it is heard in a legislative committee.
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Khon Rahlan of Raleigh throws out a net at the Milburnie Dam on the Neuse River as he tries to catch fish in the shallows. A Raleigh firm proposes to take out the privately owned dam, which predates the Civil War.
In fight over dam, sides ask, What’s natural?
Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/04/22/448772/in-fight-over-dam-sides-ask-whats.html#ixzz0lqoQH6Vn
BY JOSH SHAFFER – STAFF WRITER
RALEIGH — For more than a century, Milburnie Dam has stood 16 feet high in the middle of Raleigh, a stone wall that interrupts the Neuse River like an aquatic comma. Above it, motorboats troll through deep water; below, fishermen wade around a pounding waterfall.
Now a Raleigh firm that does environmental work wants to tear out the privately owned dam and let the Neuse flow freely, removing the only man-made obstacle between Falls Lake and Pamlico Sound. Doing so, they say, would bring shad and other fish further upriver and improve the water quality by speeding up a slowed-down Neuse.
At the same time, residents who live above the dam worry that pulling it out will spoil the rich scenery and wildlife that thrives in deeper water, and reduce the already shallow river to a trickle. With the water level expected to drop as much as 10 feet behind the dam, they say, the Neuse will shrink far below its muddy banks just as Raleigh spends millions to construct a greenway to draw hikers and boaters.
“The first general principle is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said James E. Smallwood, a professor at N.C. State University’s veterinary school who lives on the Neuse’s banks. “This ain’t broke. It’s wonderful.”
Based in Raleigh, Restoration Systems has a long history of environmental mitigation banking, which means the firm does work to improve ecology, receives government credits for that work, then sells those credits to public and private agencies doing construction projects. Potentially worth millions, these credits help builders speed projects that might otherwise get mired in red tape or be permanently stalled.
In past years, Restoration Systems has taken out dams on both the Deep and Little rivers, and it has roughly 40 mitigation sites in North Carolina. “We found the bass fishing actually got better down at Carbonton Dam,” said George Howard, the firm’s president, speaking of the Deep River project. “That went from a stagnant impoundment to a free-flowing, burbling river.”
In February, Restoration Systems sent a prospectus to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, proposing to take out the Neuse dam roughly 15 miles downstream of the Falls Lake dam, freeing up an estimated 29,000 linear feet of water. The firm cited backing from state and federal agencies and called the dam a barrier to shad, striped bass and other migratory fish.
“There’s been an unnatural barrier there for 100 years,” Howard said. “It’s done horrible things to the ecology of the river.”
Alissa Bierma, who, as Neuse riverkeeper, advocates for and monitors the river, backed the dam’s destruction. Shad are plentiful just below the dam, she said, and above it, the wetlands aren’t well-functioning. “We don’t like dams,” she said. “It’s an unnatural change we have a chance to correct.”
But to those along the river, there’s nothing natural about the Neuse’s flow.
It’s already backed up by an enormous dam holding Raleigh’s water supply. Milburnie Dam predates the Civil War, when it was wooden and helped run a paper mill. In the 100-plus years that water has backed up behind it, wildlife has flourished there. If anything, residents say, the altered Neuse is the more natural version.
Retired lawyer Jerry Alvis took a tour from his home a few miles above the dam in the middle of the day recently. Beavers, water snakes, hawks, herons and turtles all could be spotted along the riverbanks.
“This is the prettiest part,” he said. “This could be a green version of San Antonio’s River Walk.”
Both he and Smallwood say they regularly pull huge catfish and bream out of their portion of the Neuse, not to mention striped bass that come through the Falls Lake dam.
The water isn’t stagnant, they say; it’s flowing over the dam at a rapid clip. As he navigates the Neuse bends, Alvis’ boat hits bottom twice. Imagine the ride, he said, with the Neuse made shallower. How many fishermen, he asked, will come there?
The true motivation is money, not ecology, said Smallwood. He and his neighbors only received notice a few weeks ago, and they were told to comment by today.
“The 800-pound gorilla,” Smallwood said, “is the city of Raleigh.”
The city’s stake
So far, Raleigh hasn’t made a formal comment on plans for the river that runs along its eastern edge. And it may not, said greenway planner Vic Lebsock. Plans call for building a trail along 28 miles of the Neuse’s shore – a $30 million project. So far, the first phase downriver from Falls Lake has been authorized for $1.4 million. The city owns considerable land along the Neuse, including around Milburnie Dam, but the money isn’t there yet to develop parks. The effect on those Neuse plans, or the city’s canoe launches, is uncertain, Lebsock said.
“How much is the water going to go down?” he asked. “We don’t know at this point.”
The city is hoping the Corps of Engineers will extend the public comment period for at least 30 days. One potential, City Manager Russell Allen said, would be purchasing the credits from Restoration Systems to aid construction of a Little River reservoir in eastern Wake County – part of Raleigh’s long-term water supply plans.
Corps officials caution that everything from Restoration Systems’ calculations to details of its plan must be scrutinized and that the Little and Neuse river projects are completely unrelated.
Meanwhile, Smallwood said he hopes public comment will turn the Neuse dam’s tide and that opposition won’t come to a lawsuit.
Besides, he said: Nobody much likes eating shad. Too bony.
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Pete Benjamin, a field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Raleigh, fishes for American shad near the Milburnie Dam.
Raleigh News & Observer, Thursday, April 15, 2010
SHAD CLOSE TO HOME
Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/04/15/437433/shad-close-to-home.html#ixzz0lqB8qyqS
BY JAVIER SERNA – STAFF WRITER
RALEIGH — A 2-pound American shad hen danced along the Neuse River’s surface and spun line off a medium-action spinning reel like a spool of kite string at the other end of a steady Atlantic breeze.
The scene is most common toward the coast, but there’s no need to truck down to the coast to satisfy the saltwater fishing urge.
For a couple of weeks, American shad have been concentrating at the Milburnie Dam in Raleigh, nearly 230 river miles upriver from the Pamlico Sound.
“They’ve come a long way,” said John Ellis, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who spends many spare spring hours pursuing American shad for the fun of it. “We’re pretty high up in the watershed.”
The American shad is one of several species that have been able to reach their former spawning grounds ever since a downstream dam was removed 12 years ago.
An electroshocking survey conducted near the Milburnie Dam last week by N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists turned up several dozen American shad and even a couple of striped bass, typical of spring sampling for the past 10 years.
“It suggests that these fish are taking advantage of the spawning habitat in the upper part of the river,” said Bob Barwick, a state fish biologist.
Earlier in the spring, hickory shad, the smaller cousin of the American shad, also ran up the Neuse, the longest river that is completely within the state’s boundaries.
Ellis and several of his colleagues aren’t the only ones who get a kick out of fishing for shad during a run that typically lasts into May. Others use fly rods to cast brightly colored “junk” flies with success.
There’s no telling how many fish are kept, but state law allows a combination of 10 American and hickory shad to be kept per day, unless the angler is fishing the Roanoke River, where only one of those may be an American shad.
“They’re tasty,” said Ellis, who said he would like to see the limit for American shad lowered on the Neuse to help protect the species.
The state has considered doing so but has decided it against for now, Barwick said.
In North Carolina, American shad tend to spawn more than once in their lives. On the Neuse River, American shad could go only as far as the Quaker Neck Dam near Goldsboro until 1998, when the dam was removed, opening up 78 more miles of river.
The low-head dam had been built in 1952, and its removal reopened old spawning grounds primarily for American shad and striped bass.
The American shad population in the Neuse is viable enough that, until this year, state biologists removed shad from below the Milburnie Dam to be used in hatchery efforts to stock the Roanoke River, which has a struggling population of the species. Striped bass and hickory shad are more abundant on the Roanoke.
The collection stopped this year because, although there are still a few 4-pound females, considered good breeders, the numbers of bigger fish are dwindling in the Neuse.
“We’re worred about removing too many fish from the Neuse River,” Barwick said.
A chance exists that more of the Neuse could be opened soon. An open comment period is being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a proposal to remove the Milburnie Dam, which would add 15 free-flowing miles to the Neuse, making the Falls Lake dam the new dead end for migratory fish. The comment period closes April 22.
< The project is a priority of the N.C. Dam Removal Task Force, which consists of staff from several state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Work could start in early 2011. But there is some opposition, according to Randy Turner, the project manager for Restoration Systems Inc., the private environmental restoration and mitigation company that is undertaking the project. Turner said some landowners near the dam are upset that the water levels above the dam will drop, making navigation with mid-sized watercraft impractical. “It will never be as high,” he said. But Turner said that aside from providing fish passage, the project will improve water quality, restore the natural habitat and aquatic community, and help up to eight state- or federally listed species of mussels and fish that were historically present in pre-dam conditions.
During rainy years such as this one, American shad tend to migrate higher up in the watershed in search of shallow rocky areas, which they prefer as spawning habitat. More of those areas await farther upstream.
Besides dam removal, American shad would be helped by more water.
The Army Corps, which regulates the water releases from Falls, has given more consideration to the needs of the spawning fish, Ellis and Barwick said. Informal discussions have been held about scheduled water releases.
“We’d like to see it a bit more formalized,” Ellis said. “It would be good for the fish if they would give us more water on a more regular basis in the spring, when the flows are high.”
For now, the Milburnie Dam is the dead end.
For anglers, carefully wading out on the rocky ledge just in front – ideally with felt-sole boots and chest waders – is an option. And calmer pools inside 100 yards downstream from the mason structure also hold American shad.
Regardless, most prefer to stalk shad in waders rather than be confined to stream’s edge.
“It certainly opens up your options,” Ellis said. “That’s the advantage. You can get away from people.”
From the bank, Ellis caught a buck American shad within a few casts.
“We’ll invite him to dinner,” he said.
But the shad declined the invitation and slipped from his grip, escaping to the muddy waters of the Neuse.
Several hundred yards downstream of the dam, hand-tied shad rigs consisting of a small spoon and dart were cast out into the current with medium-action spinning gear.
First, a shad in the 1-pound class was hooked. It had about the same amount of fight in it as an equally sized hickory shad. It bled from a deep hookset and was kept for the table.
The next fish was twice the size, full of eggs, and it tested the drag system of medium-action spinning tackle. An acrobatic fish, it was coaxed to the water’s surface more than once, each time making a desperate run back into the murky, muddy water. Eventually, the hook was carefully removed and the fish was slipped back into the river.
With any luck, the descendents of that fish will be back in four or five years.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources gave EBX $911,000 for mitigation work the Transportation Department had already paid for much earlier.
This year, state environmental officials agreed to pay a Maryland company nearly $1 million for its work to help rid the Neuse River Basin of tons of nitrogen, which pollutes drinking water
Here’s the catch for North Carolina taxpayers: The state Department of Transportation paid $1.8 million for the same work several years ago. Yet the new deal appears to be legal.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources entered into a $911,000 contract with EBX to remove more than 100,000 pounds of nitrogen during the next 30 years from the Neuse basin, the water source for many communities in the region, and to restore a Neuse tributary.
EBX won the contract with a bid lower than its competitors. The other contractors soon realized why: EBX was claiming the nitrogen reductions from two sites created several years earlier in Johnston and Wayne counties. The two sites were part of $11 million in contracts from the N.C. Department of Transportation in 2000 and 2002 to replace wetlands and streams destroyed for road projects.
The $911,000 would not create a new wetland or a patch of vegetation to absorb nitrogen runoff, which has been linked to fish kills and algae blooms in one of the nation’s most endangered rivers. EBX would collect the money for administrative work and for continued monitoring at its existing sites.
State environmental officials approved the payment, saying there were no regulations to prevent it. EBX officials say their proposal is no different than someone discovering something newly valuable on their property and then profiting from it.
State officials call it “additionality.” EBX and others in the business call it “credit stacking.” Critics say it smells like double dipping, and they want the state to stop it.
“That money was supposed to pay to protect our water, and instead it is going into the pocket of a private company for no environmental benefit,” said Alissa Bierma, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.
This may not be the only case. State officials acknowledge that for years, they have allowed a similar double dip from two other environmental restoration funds, which could be costing the state millions of dollars. Those who restore streams in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins can collect from two funds – one for streams, the other for buffers along the streams – for work on the same stretch of water.
Chaos and controversy
The double-dipping questions represent a tumultuous moment for a state program that has spent more than $370million since 1997 on environmental mitigation, which essentially requires those who harm streams and wetlands through development to pay for restoration or preservation elsewhere in the river basin. Environmentalists, developers and companies in the restoration business are upset about decisions about what qualifies as restoration and how much the state should charge developers and road builders to pay for it.
The mitigation requirements have caused confusion and controversy. After a two-hour discussion at a recent state Environmental Management Commission subcommittee meeting, the chairman, Charles Peterson, a marine studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said: “I’m sure we’re making progress. I wish I could tell you what it is.”
Compensating for damage from development has led to a burgeoning industry in environmental restoration. Companies purchase sites or pay landowners for conservation easements on properties that the companies then restore to a natural state. An example would be digging out a creek that had been piped or straightened so that it would flow naturally, and planting vegetation along both sides to prevent erosion of its banks.
Typically, the value created by such restoration is marketed as credits that can be bought by developers or by the state. The state Department of Transportation, for example, is a major customer because it damages streams and wetlands as it builds new roads.
To help DOT with mitigation, the state environmental agency in 2003 created the Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The program collects fees from developers and road builders and manages four environmental restoration funds. It also sometimes hires people to perform restoration work.
Another division of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources certifies how much environmental benefit all these restored sites provide.
Who gets the credit?
The credit stacking occurs because the work sponsored by the four restoration funds can, in some cases, produce the same results.
Two are federally mandated and require restoration of streams and wetlands. The other two are required by the state to provide additional protection for its most endangered waters. One of those requires restoration of land along streams, while another pays for projects that absorb nitrogen and phosphorus before they run into streams.
Stream restoration often requires building vegetation buffers along the banks. Wetlands and buffers can absorb nitrogen and phosphorus.
As a result, the ecosystem program and companies that specialize in environmental remediation may get paid for two types of restoration on the same piece of property.
The EBX contract represents the first time the state has paid a company to absorb nitrogen after the company had been paid for stream and wetlands restoration at the same site years earlier. Internal correspondence shows that state officials tried to halt the contract after a competitor, Restoration Systems of Raleigh, and the Riverkeeper associations expressed alarm.
The associations, in a letter March 4 to Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Dee Freeman, said allowing the credit stacking would result in a “net degradation in water quality.”
“This scenario results in a net loss of riparian buffer acreage and function, violating the intent of the rules … and cheating the public out of the water quality benefit they promise,” the riverkeepers wrote.
But the ecosystem program’s director, Bill Gilmore, said he could not reject the contract because the state Division of Water Quality had certified the sites.
John Dorney, a water quality supervisor, said his agency had no other option.
“Our rules are silent on the matter, unfortunately,” he said. His agency has produced a draft rule that would close what he views as a loophole that led to the payment to EBX. It is expected to be discussed, along with other proposed changes to the mitigation requirements, at a meeting Wednesday. For the moment, the state will not allow overlapping payments for other such projects.
Dorney, however, said he has no plans to prevent the state or private companies from receiving payments from both the stream and buffer funds for work at the same site. Dorney said even with the site stacking, the two programs restore more territory than was lost through development.
But his boss, Freeman, said he wants a full review of all sitestacking. “I think the case of EBX causes us to pause and look at the entire issue,” he said.
If the state allows the double dip in streams and buffers, it helps EBX’s claim to its $911,000 payment from other funds.
“It’s the same philosophy,” said George Kelly, founder of EBX.
Bierma, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said the state and federal requirements were not created so that state and private companies could double dip on one site. Many other states, for example, don’t have state restoration programs and therefore rely on the federal regulations to keep rivers and wetlands from being gobbled up by development.
“Having the ability to stack credits is where the fudging starts happening and we have a huge potential of losing ecological value without anyone noticing,” she said.
Developers are concerned about credit stacking. They don’t know whether they are being overcharged, or whether the fees are not paying for the required restoration.
“We’re not trying to get out of it,” said Lisa Martin, a lobbyist for the N.C. Home Builders Association. “We want to make sure that it’s fair. If we are paying for this, then we want to make sure that it’s paying for the work that needs to be done.”
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CHAPEL HILL — With North Carolina facing a looming budget deficit, Governor Perdue has cited "green collar" jobs as an area of targeted growth to provide a needed spark to the state’s economic engine. By John Preyer
I applaud the new governor for her interest in promoting economic growth related to jobs that have the added benefit of being good for the environment. However, the best way she can accomplish this worthy goal is to follow the central tenant of the Hippocratic Oath – first, do no harm.
That’s because, for more than 10 years, the state has been directly competing against existing green collar jobs in a way that has led to the stifling of an industry that would otherwise be a great success story of green job creation.
I happen to know something about this subject as I co-founded a "green" company in 1998. It originally specialized in wetland mitigation and has since grown to include stream, riparian buffer and nutrient offset mitigation. We have 15 employees.
North Carolina, unlike almost all other states, has operated a state wetland mitigation program under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources since the legislature first authorized it in 1996. The purpose was to provide a state-sanctioned clearinghouse for all mitigation needs, so that the unavoidable impact (destruction) of certain environmental resources, due to permitted development activities, would be offset with the requisite amount of mitigation.
How did it work here?
Not so great. The first iteration of the concept was called the Wetland Restoration Program and, as The N&O revealed in a front-page story on Jan. 2, 2002, the program took in over $58 million in payments from development interests for mitigation needs over five years, but completed just 10 acres of mitigation.
This debacle resulted in a repackaging of the program with a new, grander name, the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, or EEP.
The EEP came into being in 2003 with an initial staff of six. The intent was for a small staff to oversee a competitive bid process involving green companies like ours (and others). The bidder would be responsible for all components of the project: site identification, land acquisition, technical evaluation, mitigation design, construction, planting and five years of monitoring to insure success.
In addition, the EEP would also maintain a smaller internal mitigation program to do these same tasks but with full government command and control over all the components, including land acquisition.
Guess what happened?
The EEP has grown to a staff of over 60 in five years and today occupies part of a former industrial warehouse complex on Capital Boulevard. The vastly expanded staff has steadily pursued a policy of trying to perform its mitigation work internally, rather than putting it out for competitive bid to mitigation companies.
The Perdue administration needs to look closely at this program and how it obtains its mitigation if it truly wants to help sustain existing green collar jobs and promote new ones.
It should also follow the lead of the most recent short session of the General Assembly, which enacted S. 1885 (An Act to Promote Compensatory Mitigation By Private Mitigation Banks). The bill establishes a preference for private mitigation banks (landrestored, enhanced, and or preserved to offset unavoidable impacts to aquatic resources resulting from development) in watersheds where they are located, and precludes the EEP from competing with those mitigation banks. One of the advantages of private mitigation banks is that they don’t require any state funding; instead they rely on the capital and resources of private companies to do the same work the state is doing with the EEP.
Perhaps the single greatest thing that distinguishes private mitigation from EEP-performed mitigation is the incentive to succeed. The projects that my company puts in the ground have to succeed in order for us to get paid. In contrast, no one has a similar motivation at EEP; they get paid regardless.
In my view, the history of government-performed mitigation in North Carolina is one of failure and empire building at the expense of the environment.
The last thing any business wants, especially today, is to have to compete against a state government program for its work. The new administration can unleash existing and add new green collar jobs in the mitigation industry simply by scaling back an inefficient state government program.
John Preyer is a partner in Restoration Systems and serves on the EEP Liaison Council representing private mitigation companies.
George Howard is many things; He is the president of the Raleigh-based Restoration Systems mitigation bank and a conservationist; he is a history buff, a science geek, a cartographer. The 42-year-old family man is a talented amateur artist, a dedicated if unprolific fisherman and a politico whose office photos show him chummy with folks including Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Lauch Faircloth and both George Bushes. By Liza Roberts
But what really gets Howard going — gets him talking a mile a minute, playing hooky from work and waking up at night — is his research into a geographical oddity known as the Carolina Bays.
These elliptical, wetland depressions, often rimmed with white, crystalline sand, are sprinkled along much of the North Carolina coast and parts of the eastern seaboard from Georgia to the District of Columbia. To Howard and those who share both his interest and his theory, these droplet-shaped dents (often choked with bay trees, hence the name) were most likely caused by a life-obliterating comet that landed on earth about 13,000 years ago: in geologic terms, quite recently. Howard wants to prove this, and he wants the world to take note.
He also knows how his theory can sound: nuts. (His word.) But it’s not, and he’s not. In fact, the theory has some impressive bona fides: The National Academy of Sciences published a paper he a and a small group of fellow researchers wrote on their findings. National Geographic has produced a documentary on the subject, and Howard and his research team were recently asked to speak on the subject at the prestigious American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. But he also knows that real believing requires seeing. His favorite quotation, borrowed from the state motto of North Carolina, is “Esse Quam Videri,” — “to be rather than to seem.” He wants to show the evidence to prove his case. And so he is delighted for the chance to show an interested party just what he’s talking about: these Carolina Bays, from above.
The Grand Tour
“You ready for the Grand Carolina Bays Tour?” Howard grins as the journey begins. The drive from downtown Raleigh to Fayetteville Regional Airport takes about an hour and a half — not nearly enough time for Howard to begin to say all he wants to say about what we’re about to see. His primer begins with a basic refresher course on the evolution of the planet, veers into mythology, geology, ancient cultures, climate science, dinosaurs, botany; sidesteps frequently into humor and pop culture — and ends up deadly serious.
Howard would be aghast at the idea that it could be summed up, but here goes: 13,000 years ago, he says, a “cataclysmic event” happened when a comet hit the earth somewhere in the vicinity of the Great Lakes. It hit an ice sheet, acting like a big kid’s cannon ball in the shallow end of a pool, throwing off a vast airborne splatter of “flying detritus,” including extra-terrestrial particles that landed as far away as North Carolina. It’s also possible that it created a shockwave that rippled across the landscape, dimpling it in the process, or that a little bit of both happened. Howard says it is certain that the comet decimated everything in its path, including the mammoths and the Clovis people, a well-documented Paleo-Indian civilization.
It Can Happen Here
Believing that such a thing happened as recently as 13,000 years ago implies that it could happen again, and possibly soon: not something most people are prepared to contemplate. But it’s clear that for Howard, zipping down Interstate 95 and half-listening to CNBC’s market-meltdown report on the radio, this possibility is neither abstract nor unimaginable. He waves his hand out the window, vaguely northward. “You wonder what came flying from that direction and landed here in these fields. Or what hell storm swept through and left these depressions.”
Howard’s fascination with that hell storm, these depressions and what it means for the future of our planet began years ago as a staffer for Lauch Faircloth in the US Senate. Studying a US Geological Survey map of Faircloth’s farm, he noticed something unusual. “What are all those elliptical dotted lines on your farm, Senator?” he asked. Faircloth’s casual reply: “Oh, you know, meteor holes.”
Howard’s “natural ferocious curiosity” took over, and he quickly became an expert on the subject. These “meteor holes,” mostly too shallow to notice at ground-level, are clearly evident from above. First observed in the 1930s when the agricultural programs of the New Deal mandated county-by-county aerial photographs, they caused a sensation at the time. The number (more than 500,000 is the estimate), the symmetry, the fact that they all point in the same direction (toward Lake Michigan) — all gripped the public imagination, culminating in a 1933 piece in Harper’s Monthly entitled “The Comet That Hit the Carolinas,” by Edna Muldrow. But the scientific establishment ultimately pooh-poohed the comet theory, arguing that the bays were caused by wind, water and erosion over time, and the subject fell off the public radar.
If Howard has his way, that will change.
The Bays from Above
When we arrive at the airport, the fall weather is unseasonably warm. The skies are bright and clear, with a slight breeze, like a day in May. Our chartered plane is miniscule. It’s so small we have to climb over its balsa-thin wings to pop into our seats through a Plexiglas-bubble hatch-top. We barely fit inside. Takeoff feels like racing down an empty street in a Matchbox car, until the thing lifts off — then it’s just like floating.
We meander above the airport before crossing over I-95 and heading south into “Bays Territory.” At first, nothing jumps out. And then it does. Two blurred, white-sand-edged ellipses, about 100-yards long and 30-yards wide, chase each other across a field of soy. Another one nearby forms a visible swamp. A ghostly pair of ovals lurk in a cleared field. Once you know what to look for, they’re impossible to miss.
“They’re everywhere,” Howard says gleefully, snapping away with a long lens camera. The jigsaw of green fields, punctuated here and there by these graceful, sandy shapes, is a beautiful sight, but as we head over the border into South Carolina, Howard points out a less lovely landmark: “Make sure not to miss the big purple lagoons of pig piss!” He’s not kidding. Countless pig farms pepper the horizon, their low-slung, silver-roofed pig houses each accompanied by a large, strangely purple, chemically treated lagoon of waste.
But as our flight path takes us over the Cape Fear River, the Bays are once again quite noticeable. They’ve multiplied, lying side-by-side now, then in rows, then in clusters. The chalk-white sand that surrounds many of them stands them out in stark relief; others are made distinct by the darker color of vegetation within their borders.
Bays are fertile ground, Howard points out. Blueberries in particular grow well in them. So do carnivorous plants: Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews. “The highest concentration of Venus flytraps in the United States are found in Eastern North Carolina,” he says. (According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, this is in fact the case.) Is he implying that these plants literally … came from Venus? “Well,” he demurs, “that’s far into the realm of speculation.”
But Howard does not consider it speculation to point out the other extra-terrestrial evidence he says are harbored in the Bays: tiny magnetic spheres, iridium-laced grains and nanodiamonds. The chemical composition of these materials, as the science press has noted, is most similar to lunar rocks and meteorites. Howard describes nanodiamonds as a veritable diamond dust that lines the bottoms of the Bays — too minute to have any value except as proof of great carbon impact. He regularly sends Ziploc bags full of the stuff to Arizona geophysicist Allen West and to a lab at UC Berkeley for testing. In the past four years Howard estimates he’s sent off more than a ton of sand from the Bays.
But despite his efforts and those of his fellow researchers, including scientists from the University of South Carolina, UC Berkeley, Brown University and UCLA, among others, the endorsement of the broader scientific community remains elusive. “It’s hard for people who are steeped in their own paradigm to accept a radically different way of viewing the past,” he says. He also points to a lack of understanding, knowledge and communication between different areas of the science establishment. As Howard puts it, “the astronomers won’t look down and the geologists won’t look up.”
If Howard’s efforts bear fruit, we’ll all start taking a cautious look skyward, and not a moment too soon. “There should be more attention paid to planetary protection,” he says. “We’re way behind the curve on that. The number of people working on it could staff a McDonald’s.” NASA does provide the global majority of research funding into near-earth-object detection and disaster prevention, but Howard’s not alone in fearing it’s not nearly enough.
“I am a catastrophist,” Howard concedes. “I think that things have happened in the past that were horrible and were recorded for us. We don’t recognize the tune, but it’s all there in myth and fable.” And, he is certain: It’s also recorded in the elliptical, wetland pocks that speckle our coastline; it’s recorded in the magnetic, extra-terrestrial matter he says is embedded in the Mammoth tusk that hangs over his television; it’s recorded in the diamond dust he FedExes across the country. The evidence is all there, he says, you just have to know how to look for it.
Indeed, Howard’s wife kids him that he sees Carolina Bays everywhere he looks, even in the shapes of the raindrops on the windshield of his car. He smiles at the thought, forcing himself to end the day-long tutorial as his Grand Carolina Bays Tour draws to a close. “You ain’t even heard half of it,” he says, and he’s not kidding.
Raleigh’s Restoration Systems Banks Mitigation Credits For A Cleaner World
By Liza Roberts
In the loft-like spaces of a renovated 1892 textile mill behind Raleigh’s Seaboard Station, Restoration Systems is banking on a cleaner world.
For a decade now the firm has been restoring wetlands, streams and other ecosystems — then “banking” that acreage in the form of mitigation credits it can sell to developers, which are required by law to offset projects that adversely impact the environment elsewhere. The firm owns or manages 33 sites comprising more than 6000 acres of wetlands and 25 miles of creeks, streams and rivers.
“In the last 10 years we have planted more than a million trees that will never be cut,” says Restoration Systems President George Howard. Most of those trees are in North Carolina, where the firm has concentrated much of its work. But Restoration Systems is looking outside the state to Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas and Virginia for wetlands and streams to restore. They’re also jumping into the emerging mitigation banking areas of water quality and endangered species.
One reason to diversify is the continuing struggle of competing with the state of North Carolina for wetlands mitigation work here. The state has built-in advantages over its private competitors, namely the ability to collect payment from developers (much of the time its own Department of Transportation) before restoring any wetlands. For Restoration Systems, it’s the other way around. Not until it has restored a wetland can it sell credits.
“The state has as much business building its own ecosystems as it does growing its own corn,” Howard says. He claims the private sector — “someone with skin in the game” — does the work faster, better and more efficiently than the government can manage.
State government headaches aside, Howard says he’s bullish about his company’s future. He and his partners John Preyer and John Skvarla are planning to grow the company, possibly adding five more “dirt chasers” to the current staff of 15. They’re excited about the new terrain they’re exploring in places such as the prairie land of Texas. “It’s absolutely fascinating for any of us to get into a different state, in a different landscape,” he says.
And they’re eager to do more in the area of water quality mitigation, where they’re reducing phosphorous and nitrogen in the Neuse River and selling credits to developers who put down impervious surfaces from Cary to New Bern. Also new is endangered species mitigation, whereby the red-cockaded woodpecker, for instance, can be protected via credits preserving its habitat of old-growth, longleaf pines in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
“In a new industry like this,” Howard says, “we’d be selling ourselves short if we didn’t take advantage of opportunities wherever they occurred.”
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration announced requirements on Monday to encourage builders to compensate for destroying wetlands or streams by paying to restore or create wetlands elsewhere.
The approach, which emphasizes linking losing and replacing wetlands across broad watersheds, has been contentious since it was proposed two years ago.
“It will accelerate our wetlands conservation effort by establishing a more effective, consistent mitigation process,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the environmental agency.
The regulation encourages expanded “mitigation banking,” in which a developer can obtain a permit to destroy a wetland or stream if the developer agrees to invest in creating or enhancing wetland elsewhere. That approach has resulted in new businesses specializing in wetland creation.
Although the regulation establishes standards for lost wetlands, it emphasizes a preference to “bank” alternative wetlands.
Environmentalists worried that the policy could encourage wetlands destruction and overall loss.
“There’s nothing in here that says we’re going to improve mitigation,” Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation, said. “It’s just going to be easier and cheaper. And the cheaper it is to mitigate, the more economic it is to buy land that has wetlands on it and destroy them.”
Ms. Sibbing said that mitigation banking was already being used, but that the new rule would make it difficult to argue that a developer should be required to provide on-site preservation.
A wetland often is important to a local ecosystem, and “it doesn’t help to move it 100 miles away,” Ms. Sibbing said.
With the new rule, the business of creating alternative wetlands is likely to prosper. George Howard, who owns a business in that field near Raleigh, N.C., said “the vast amount” of alternative wetlands involved not creating wetlands, but restoring lost wetlands.
The environmental agency and the corps said the rules would increase public participation.