At the National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking Conference in New Orleans this week, the thought of parks has stimulated quite a buzz among mitigation bankers, consultants, and engineering and design firms who are attending the conference. The reason for such keen interest? NRPA’s “Parks for Mitigation” initiative.
Parks for Mitigation is an innovative pilot project begun by NRPA about 18 months ago in cooperation with Angler Environmental, a design-build environmental restoration firm based in Manassas, VA. NRPA and Angler have been working together to develop a pilot project creating stream mitigation banks on public parklands in the MD, VA, and DC region that, if successful, will serve as a model for other park agencies across the country.
Stream mitigation banks are the hottest thing going in the world of environmental restoration right now. They are modeled after the highly successful practice of creating wetland mitigation banks to counter the adverse impacts of development when no other solutions will work. Mitigation ‘banks’ are just what they imply— a larger scale project containing constructed wetlands or repaired streams that have been restored to their highest natural quality and function and then protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement. Proposed projects are reviewed and approved by an Interagency Review Team (IRT) composed of regulators from state and federal agencies, and the projects generate mitigation ‘credits’ with cash value that are then sold on a private sector market to developers and other large development project managers. The practice has gained nationwide acceptance and when no other solutions will work to protect wetlands and streams, mitigation banking at its best can replace the functions of natural systems that are adversely affected in the development process.
What makes Parks for Mitigation so attractive to the mitigation bankers,design consultants, and contractors is that parks open up a whole new realm of possible lands and partners for high quality mitigation banks, especially stream mitigation banks.
In mitigation projects, there is a cardinal rule, codified in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to: “Avoid, Minimize, Mitigate.” The best solution is to just leave sensitive environmental lands alone. But when that is not possible, regulators have come to accept other forms of compensating for damages including in-lieu fees and mitigation banks.
Since the US Army Corps allowed mitigation banking to become a preferred alternative in 2008, a robust market has grown in certain states and regions where investors and environmental bankers who are looking for environmentally responsible ways to invest capital have drawn on the expertise of firms with planning, design, and construction experiences to perform this highly specialized work.
NRPA’s Parks for Mitigation project grew from an educational session that Angler Environmental presented at the 2011 Congress about a highly successful stream mitigation banking project they had completed in cooperation with the Prince William County Park Authority in Northern Virginia on county parkland. AE restored 120,000 linear feet of environmentally damaged streams in various parks at no cost to the county, sold the mitigation credits, and will have paid the county more than $3.5 million when the restoration work has been completed.
After attending Angler’s session and learning more about the success of the Prince William County project, I began to think that this project and other demonstration projects like it could serve as a model for many other park and recreation agencies with similar situations—that is, plenty of needs for environmental restoration and no funding or resources to complete such work.
After discussions with Angler, they agreed to a plan to work with NRPA on developing a pilot program. Collectively, we would work to identify potential park and recreation agencies that might be suitable candidates stream mitigation banks, and if they were, Angler would complete the feasibility studies to actually determine if they had suitable banking sites. Since the inception, we have identified six park and recreation agencies in the DC, MD, and VA metropolitan region that are interested in creating their own mitigation banks, and several projects are now in various stages of development, including identification of possible sites, feasibility studies, agency evaluation and approval, bank design, IRT approval, and permitting. It’s still a long way from the first shovel of dirt being turned for construction, but several of these pilot sites show great promise for success. And based on the exceptional level of interest from attendees at the National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking conference, the idea of partnering with parks on stream mitigation banking is a smash home run.
Look for a feature story on the Parks for Mitigation project, its history, promise, and challenges very soon in Parks and Recreation Magazine.
Is your agency interested in the idea of creating a stream or wetland mitigation bank? Let me know—the possibilities for park and recreation agencies as conservation partners are very exciting.
Written by Rich Dolesh, Vice President for Conservation and Parks