Farm to Forest

by Tyler F. Thigpen

Mitigation banks are helping restore Louisiana’s invaluable wetlands.

Photos by Michael M. Bell

Louisiana wetlands are being lost at astounding rates and these valuable habitats are the Gulf Coast’s only natural defense in storm events. While the media often addresses this land loss issue with similes involving football fields and basketball courts, many Louisianans are overwhelmed and confused by the causes and the solutions to this landscape-scale problem.

Louisiana wetland loss is commonly attributed to channelization from oil and gas exploration. A look at Louisiana coast aerial imagery reveals a labyrinth of linear paths cut through our state’s marshes and wetlands. These man-made corridors weaken the structure and stability of the land, making marshes highly susceptible to washout during daily tidal action and in storm events. Further inland, large-scale agricultural efforts have resulted in the clearing and conversion of hundreds of thousands of acres of forested and emergent freshwater wetlands. These losses, paired with a political body that seems to have very little interest in protecting one of the state’s most valuable resources, are bad news for coastal Louisiana.

The lack of coastal protection legislation and support from Gov. Bobby Jindal is somewhat confusing coming from a governor with an agenda for increasing oil and gas infrastructure and production in the state. And even more baffling when considering that Louisiana’s wetlands harbor 10 percent of the nation’s oil reserves, 20 percent of the oil refining capabilities and 25 percent of the natural gas sources. Luckily, protection of wetlands and other waters are on the radar of government regulatory agencies and businesses.

Impacts, including dredge and fill, to wetlands and jurisdictional waters (those water bodies connected to other waters by an obvious nexus) are regulated by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency. The USACE governs impacts to wetlands and jurisdictional waters with regulations set forth by Section 404 of the EPA Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act, respectively. South of the Louisiana Coastal Zone boundary, in conjunction with the USACE, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Management regulates impacts to wetlands below five feet in elevation or less.

These regulatory agencies maintain a “no net loss” policy, meaning that wetlands that are destroyed as a result of industry and infrastructure development activities will be permitted and mitigated by 1) purchase of credits from a mitigation bank; 2) a permittee-responsible mitigation plan; and/or 3) payment to an in-lieu fee program; in an effort to create wetland acreage to offset those wetlands lost. From these regulations, a healthy mitigation banking industry has developed in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coastal Region.

Mitigation banks are created on parcels of land that historically existed as wetlands and, in most cases, were put into agricultural or pasture use and have been farmed or grazed for decades. Often, these properties are low-lying, poorly functioning agricultural lands or pastures that are actively managed to keep them dry, slowly transitioning back to a naturally more hydric state if un-managed.

Mitigation-banking companies (private land-owners or companies specifically dedicated to the practice; not to be confused with financial banking institutions) purchase these properties and restore them to a native, functioning wetland known as a mitigation bank. Once the parcel is approved as a mitigation bank by the USACE (which governs development and approval of wetland and stream mitigation banks because of their eventual jurisdictional status), the property is protected in perpetuity and held under a third-party conservation easement.

The process of permitting wetland impacts and mitigating for those impacts is both time consuming and costly to mitigation banking companies as well as their clients, but has resulted in more than 30,000 acres of coastal prairie, emergent or forested wetlands conserved in permanence in Louisiana. An estimated 15 million native tree seedlings have been planted as a result of mitigation banking.

Similar to mitigation banking, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Wetlands Reserve Program is a recently expired federal wetland restoration program that, while active, was responsible for the restoration of hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands throughout the US. The program was born from the 1990 Farm Bill and allowed landowners to enlist parcels that were wetlands prior to development for agricultural and grazing uses into the program. By 2011, approximately 20 years after the program’s creation, more than 220,000 acres had been enrolled in the WRP program in Louisiana.

In 2014, the WRP program expired and the USDA NRCS launched the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, which offers conservation easements for both agriculture and wetlands. The ACEP Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program works directly with landowners to restore eligible cropland, rangeland, private timberland and pasture land back to their former wetland state. In it’s first year, more 7,000 acres were enrolled in the program in Louisiana.

A similar NRCS program exists in an effort to address watershed deficiencies that threaten property and life. The Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) is a resource for landowners whose property has been severely affected by drought, wildfire, flood, hurricane and other natural disasters. Year by year, funds appropriated by Congress determine when and where this program is implemented.

While the NRCS initiatives are fundamentally similar to mitigation banking in that poorly performing farmlands are often re-established as wetland ecosystems, the WRE program is very different from mitigation banking in that the USDA NRCS develops a restoration or re-habilitation plan and implements that plan, assuming all restoration costs, on the candidate property. In return for participation in the program, the landowner is paid to enlist their property under a 30-year or perpetual easement.

With many agricultural lands being converted to neighborhoods, commercial properties and industrial grounds, mitigation banking, the Wetland Easement Program and the Emergency Watershed Program are ensuring wetlands are restored and protected throughout the state.

“It’s important to enroll non-productive ag lands into the program and protect them for perpetuity,” says Michael M. Bell, an ecologist and owner of acreage enrolled in the EWP. “The programs helps to increase valuable wetland acreage throughout the state…otherwise those with financial interests in mind will certainly agree that the degraded ag land would be a perfect place for an apartment complex, Wal-Mart, industrial facility, etc. It’s comforting that the NRCS is there to help restore these wetlands and to give advice for promoting a healthy wetland habitat for all species who call wetlands their home, both flora and fauna.”