Stop Digging!

Tug on Fraser River
VANCOUVER, Canada — a tug on the Fraser River Delta, where Canada’s West Coast meets the Pacific. Writes Chris Wood: Wetlands, at the interface of the aquatic and terrestrial, are the most biologically productive of all natural ecosystems, the most generative of other values, serving as nurseries for fish, way-stations for migrating waterfowl, storm buffers and stabilizers of floodwater. They are also among the most degraded and colonized by human agriculture and urbanization. Photo by Deborah Jones Copyright 2014

August 1, 2014    

It’s one of those authorless pieces of universal wisdom: When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

In my last installment in this space, I suggested that the time has come for what some might call desperate measures. The problems assaulting us on multiple fronts — religious and ethnic distractions; a climate on the threshold of regime change; an overdraft on most of our natural service accounts such as wild fisheries; and a looming global imbalance of people, food and water — are psychologically as well as materially overwhelming. If we try to swallow the fire hose of challenges, we will drown. We need, I suggested then, to apply the best technology we have for coping under such withering incoming fire: triage.

We must focus, that is, on what we can save with positive action now. This brings me to the aforementioned aphorism.

It is clear on the most cursory as well as the most rigorous of examination that if we are not running out of all of nature quite yet, we are certainly running out of the good bits. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment remains the most thorough statement of humanity’s global balance at the bank of nature. Some 1,360 experts from 95 countries examined two dozen eco-service ‘supply chains’ on which you and I and the kids rely, from ocean fisheries to the green stuff that makes oxygen.

The Assessment’s Summary could not be clearer: “[A]pproximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services examined … are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.”

That is, we are deep in a hole on nearly two-thirds of the biologically critical value streams that keep us all alive.

Then it gets worse. In the very next paragraph, the Assessment advises us that, “there is established but incomplete evidence that changes being made in ecosystems are increasing the likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems (including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes) that have important consequences for human well-being.” [emphasis mine]

The analogy here is more like being out in a storm in the middle of the ocean in a boat with a thick, sturdy hull — and rather than digging that hole, we’re drilling it in the bottom of the boat. 

The Assessment provided helpful illustrations of what we might watch for, as we approach these “abrupt and potentially irreversible” disruptions in the habitat to which we owe our species’ existence. “Examples … include disease emergence, abrupt alterations in water quality, the creation of “dead zones” in coastal waters, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.” Can we all say ‘Ebola’? How about ‘Toledo’? ‘Polar vortex’?

We are not only in a hole… we may be digging our way through an ecological safety margin, a range of resilience in natural systems that we are putting under increasing stress, with a rising risk of breaking through at any moment into a new natural regime that is not compatible with much of our existing economy.

So, let’s stop digging.

This is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. In fact, in a variety of ways and places we have certainly tried to stop digging.

We have set aside big chunks of flourishing ecosystem as parkland, as public forest land, as greenbelt or ecosystem refuge. (Not nearly enough to constitute a prudent reserve of natural services, but at least a start, a few pennies in the piggy.)

Then temptation arises. Someone points out that if we dig just a little deeper, there’ll be oil. Or gold. Or gas. Or copper. Resolve weakens and we pick up the shovel. 

Relying on the virtue of self-denial — social, corporate or individual — is probably not going to rescue us here, before we run one of the more critical of our natural accounts down to zero.

What we need instead is a mechanism to bring some greed to bear. Greed may not be as good as Gordon Gekko claimed, but it certainly can bring some horsepower to an enterprise.

As United States President George H.W. Bush — that gaunt figure hovering in the historic mists behind the Technicolor disaster that was his son, George W. — realized, in a landmark piece of regulation that deserves wider awareness than it ever achieved.

This is the “no net loss” rule for critical U.S. wetlands, enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency under H.W.’s tenure. Its starting point was the recognition that it was time for America to stop digging its way through its wetlands — in general, the primest of the primo pieces of productive nature-scape.

Wetlands, at the interface of the aquatic and terrestrial, are the most biologically productive of all natural ecosystems, the most generative of other values, serving as nurseries for fish, way-stations for migrating waterfowl, storm buffers and stabilizers of floodwater. They are also among the most degraded and colonized by human agriculture and urbanization. Across most of North America’s central plains and Canadian Prairies, as many as 90% of historic ‘sloughs’ — small waterholes ringed with marsh — have been ploughed under. Most of major deltas in the temperate zone of the planet are under the streets of major cities: Alexandria, Shanghai, Mumbai. Others, like the Colorado, have been sacrificed to the need to grow cotton and golf greens in the desert.

The EPA’s new rule confirmed that the United States couldn’t afford to lose any more of these high-value, triple-AAA ecosystem assets. Part of its genius, however, was to insert “net” between “no” and “loss.” With that, the EPA acknowledged that a hard line would inevitably crumble, that now and again the temptation to shovel aside just a few more wetland acres would be overwhelming.

But then came the second flash of, if not genius, then a daring reliance on an unconventional bit of market Conservatism. If some wetlands were inevitably going to be lost, a zero net loss could still be achieved by creating new ones as fast or faster than old ones disappeared. Not only that, but if federal policy could create a demand for fresh ponds and marshes to mitigate the irresistible loss of existing ones, that policy could also lay out some ‘playing-field’ rules that invited private suppliers to come to market with new wetlands for old. 

Aptly this new ecological capital, created to replace what America was drawing down at the bank of nature, was dubbed a mitigation ‘bank’. As of 2013, there were more than 1,800 such banks registered with a national database.

Immediate objections can be raised. Can a man-made ‘wetland’ ever reproduce, from scratch, the multiple benefits of a mature natural one? Certainly not immediately: one reason why the policy required a more than one-to-one ratio of replacement wetland.

Then there are the usual cheats that occur in every commerce. Investigations revealed that some early mitigation wetlands were little more than — or even literally were — water features on golf courses. Like every other market, this one needs rules. 

Nonetheless, in a well designed, restored or recreated wetland, nature quickly re-asserts itself.

Of course another problem is that nature isn’t fungible: creating a batch of new marshes in Saskatchewan won’t mitigate the loss of the Colorado Delta. For ‘no-net-loss’ to work, the mitigation bank must deal in the same currency as the asset being replaced. This means that mitigation is inherently a local activity.

But there are also second-order benefits. 

Requiring developers, whether industries or public bodies, to replace any wetland they destroy, and allowing other entrepreneurs to supply that replacement on a cost-plus-profit basis, (especially if it must be replaced at 120 or 150 per cent of its original extent), creates an economic penalty for destroying the original wetland. It also forces the economy (that’s you and me, when we use the company’s product or municipality’s service) to pay the real cost of maintaining a viable minimal balance in our wetland account.

And to the extent that nature banks must operate in the same eco-region as the damages they’re mitigating, the approach also keeps more of the cash flowing through extractive enterprises in the community that hosts them.

The U.S. Wildlife Service operates a similar sort of system to prevent the net loss of habitat for endangered species. Feel the need to disrupt a California pond occupied by freshwater Fairy Shrimp? Be prepared to budget an extra $300,000 an acre to replace it.

If we try to save every pond and copse that was there when we were kids, we’ll lose them. Either all of them or enough that it won’t matter. No net loss, is something we might actually be able to do.

The alternative is to keep digging.

Copyright Chris Wood 2014



Examine our natural accounts according to the Millennium Assessment at:

Read more about mitigation banks at:

And about habitat mitigation at:  and

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