Confab: Yet another huddle on the fate of the NCEEP

If I had a dollar for every stakeholder meeting, facilitated discussion, working group, and RFP modification effort I have attended in the last decade concerning the North Carolina mitigation fee program — I could pay for a robust lunch and still have some jingle in my pocket. In fact, I keep a box of magic markers on my desk at all times in order to be prepared for these tedious sessions and their inevitable chart-fliping diagrams of the problems.

A facilitated discussion

Once again, a seeeerious evaluation is being made by the wetland policy industry of the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program.  In this case it is the respected UNC School of Government (SOG) sitting us down to see if we can all just get along.  The ultimate goal is, I fear, to find some political method for justifying the out-of-control, nobody-on-Jones-street-authorized-it, mistake-prone, developer-facilitating, government-price-fixing expensive mess that is the NCEEP.

How about this for an idea taken from the National Environmental Policy Act:  The “No-Build” alternative.

It is time to wind it down.  It is time for “No-Build.” Somehow, 49 other states struggle through the day without subsidizing their developers with a state-wide-pay-and-pave-program.  The North Carolina monstrosity was concocted in 2002 only to sweep a previous scandal concerning the NC Wetland Restoration Program (NCWRP) under the rug with a new name and more money.  Tar Heels would not miss it.   (Unless, of course, you were seeking a subsidized permit to dredge and fill wetlands.)

Yet, I wonder.  Is the “No-Build” alternative even in the SOG’s play book?  The SOG, I understand, had a hand in developing the NCWRP [WRONGMea Culpa], the first iteration of fee-based mitigation in North Carolina. And the SOG is certainly not the School of less Government.  Is it possible for the SOG to simply do the right thing and recommend that the state back-out of the business of providing developers with compensatory mitigation at fixed prices?   Or will we once more trod down the well-worn path of “reform” without substance and meetings without results.  I am keeping an open-mind, but I am not encouraged based on my years of experience.

In the meantime, here is a preview of tomorrow’s gathering lifted from the quite cool NC Water Wiki sponsored by the SOG. One of the other invitees posed a few questions to our host :

In the meantime, here are some similar questions from another potential participant and my answers –

Maureen,
Thank you for the invitation to participate in the SOG Evaluation of the EEP.  In discussing this process with colleagues, some questions have arisen.  Based upon the stated goal of the project: “an independent analysis of EEP’s procurement methods,” the range of topics covered is not clear.
Q:  Can you provide more detail?
A:  The School of Government has been asked to evaluate the EEP’s procurement methods.  I am overseeing the evaluation from the position of evaluation methodology and research methods expertise.  Paul Caldwell, a SOG project director, runs the nuts and bolts of our evaluation projects – he will be the main contact for day to day activities.  Bill Holman and Richard Whisnant are colleagues who are content experts, and they will help facilitate the process, especially the technical conversations.
The word independent is to emphasize that the SOG will be conducting the evaluation in a transparent, neutral fashion, without any preconceptions about the program.  In fact, I have taken steps to avoid even reading about controversy about the program (though I know something is there) so that I can ask as un-biased, methodologically sound questions as possible.

Real World Restoration and the Wetland Policy Industry

To identify, acquire, design, construct and manage for the long term actual aquatic ecosystems is a privilege and a challenge for our team at Restoration Systems.  “Stories from the Field” is in large part our attempt to communicate this experience in order to educate the wetland policy industry.

What is the “wetland policy industry” you ask?  It is my term for the 1000+ well intended people nationally who are wetland and environmental mitigation specialists — but not involved directly with anything that would wet a boot (except perhaps the occasional well-planned field trip).   It’s the think tankers, planners, academics, high-level regulators and Washington environmentalists who provide indispensable support for the politics of the wetland regulatory and policy apparatus on which our company relies, but who are woefully short of comprehensive real world experience with — and economic responsibility for — actual ecosystems.

This is to some degree excusable.  Wetland regulation and mitigation is hardly a generation old, and therefore very little intellectual mixing has occurred.  In other words, unlike agriculture, where the planner or policy maker might have had a grandmother who farmed, or the transportation sector, where the “road wonk” actually drives a car — the folks who are the backbone of a strongly protective wetland policy and those who carry it out are almost entirely siloed in their own intellectual envelopes.

But it is excusable only to a degree.  When the pontificators become so lost in their white papers, policy prescriptions and planning documents that they do not provide support, but misapply resources within the field (and away from the field) it is time to critically assess the value of their efforts in order to distinguish that which encourages better mitigation and is helpful to the comprehensive practitioner — and what is political posturing in the name of science or policy. “Stories from the Field” will attempt to make that distinction.  Stay tuned.