Commentary: Washed Away

The Swamp Merchant was on vacation deep in the fecund marshes of South Florida during the “Washed Way” series on mitigation this week. I was hardly surprised though, since the worst kept secret in Raleigh among environmental professionals was that reporter Dan Kane and the News and Observer have been working for years to document the failures of the state In-Lieu-Fee mitigation program.

While not surprised on Sunday, I was a bit spooked. What if the series never made the distinction between the people who do what I do, restore wetlands and streams and work like hell to see them succeed or I go broke, and the bureaucracy at NCEEP which has made a hash of their “in-house” projects for years?

What if private commercial mitigation “banks,” with all their scrutiny and regulatory oversight, are not distinguished from state projects regulated by the same state agency that takes payments for them?

Oh, the worry.

Turns out the worry was justified. I don’t think any reader without significant prior knowledge of the intricacies of compensatory mitigation would be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in this sorry state of affairs.

As good guys, all of us at Restoration Systems were being brushed by the ink of the state’s paper of record. Stream mitigation and restoration was being made to seem a terrible failure across the board.

Would anyone ever know of Three Mile, Travis Hamrick’s knock-out stream and wetland site in Avery County? Or the Causey Farm stream and wetland site Worth Creech restored for the FedEx hub in Guilford County? (Causey could make John Muir weep.) Nope. Just careful documentation of the myriad failings of the state program’s “in-house” projects, with nary a mention of the other methods.

But sunshine is still healthy and we got a fabulous week of weather from the News and Observer. As long-time promoters of an entirely different way of performing mitigation in North Carolina — at-risk commercial mitigation banks — our company, Restoration Systems, is willing to see eggs broken while we wait for the omelet.

I am willing to endure day-after-day of bad press for mitigation in general, as long as the policy makers, future articles and the public eventually catch-on to the good news.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Other states and Corps Districts do not have state-wide programs to sell developers mitigation and then do the projects later. Outside of North Carolina mitigation is increasingly accomplished by green entrepreneurs banking mitigation ahead of time and receiving salable credit for it — after the ecosystem is cared for.

This system is recommended because it distributes the responsibility for mitigation to regulated private firms who have their own capital at risk. We contend that restoration performed at-risk, with the financial reward of the sponsor rising or falling depending on the ecological results, will someday be recognized in North Carolina as the superior public policy tool to the “fee” program.

The (no) command and (out-of) control state mitigation leviathan documented by the Old Reliable will be retired (again) at some point. The North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program is a failed experiment of government that has worked at cross purposes to its mandate.

I’d like to go on but at the close of this post I am now in New Orleans preparing for bed. I have a meeting in the morning with potential customers to discuss providing bonded wetland mitigation. Later this week I’ll be in Baltimore at the National Mitigation Banking Conference and hope to post once more. God bless this fine spring day in the meantime.