America’s iconic landscapes and natural treasures attract visitors from all over the world, fueling local economies and supporting a $646 billion national outdoor economy. Since taking office, President Obama has taken unprecedented action to invest in our natural resources and work with American business leaders who understand that taking action to increase environmental protections is good for the future of our planet and their bottom line. Last month, the White House announced that 81 companies from all 50 states signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge to commit to reducing emissions and support a strong international climate agreement. And just two weeks ago, the Secretary of Labor made a crucially important announcement about pension investing with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in mind.
This week, the President took another significant step to encourage American businesses to invest in conservation, signing a Presidential Memorandum to accelerate restoration efforts and incentivize private investment in our land, water and wildlife.
Across the country, the private sector is increasingly looking for opportunities to invest in solutions that restore natural resources. Impact investors like these seek measurable environmental benefits alongside conventional return on capital. For example, in September, investors began restoring more than 23,000 acres of wetlands in northern Minnesota. The area, which is one of the most important bird habitats in the state and home to many other significant plant and animal species, was drained in the early 1900s and abandoned. Decades later, the area is now being voluntarily restored in exchange for credits which can eventually be used to offset smaller areas of wetlands lost to development elsewhere in the state.
Similar approaches, known as wetland or mitigation banks, have successfully encouraged private developers to invest in conservation and have led to the protection of more than 800,000 acres of wetlands and important habitat. This announcement builds on a series of efforts by the Administration, including the EPA Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center and the DOE Clean Energy Investment Center, to address the private sector demand for impact investment opportunities.
In addition to fostering solutions like these, today’s Memorandum is a great step forward for conservation, building on a three-decade bi-partisan history of Presidential leadership that has encouraged innovation in land and water protection efforts. In 1980, President Carter ordered agencies to evaluate the potential for marketable rights to provide the private sector with flexibility and more efficiency in implementing regulations. President George H.W. Bush later established a ‘no net loss’ goal for the Nation’s wetlands, with the intent of making sure the total acreage of wetlands in the country do not decrease, but remain constant or increase.
By 2008, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and EPA finalized a new regulation to improve compensation for impacts to rivers, streams and wetlands to better support the objectives of the Clean Water Act. According to a new fact sheet released by the Corps and EPA, currently, less than 10% of development permits result in significant impacts to protected waters. The losses from these impacts can be offset by using mitigation banks and local restoration programs. Since the implementation of the 2008 regulation, more than 550 new private mitigation banks have been approved creating a supply of credits for private developers to utilize and ensuring 50% faster permitting times. In many cases, these successful investments in environmental protection and restoration are made years in advance of development permits. The approach has been both profitable for a new class of small businesses and impact investors and effective at making Federal permitting quicker.
The last thirty years of work have taught us some important lessons on how to get this right. Today’s Memorandum builds on this progress, strengthening protection for land and water in three major ways:
These conservation commitments are paired with additional principles described in the Memorandum that create a clearer playing field to accelerate impact investing in natural resource restoration:
The Presidential Memorandum creates the predictability and incentives needed to encourage private investment and strong protections for the environment that will lead to bigger markets and more conservation success. This investment will expand the estimated 125,000 jobs and $9.5 billion in direct economic activity already engaged in restoration of natural resources in the U.S.
In addition to the Presidential Memorandum, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is releasing a compatible new policy today that further specifies how the Department will avoid impacts and encourage offsetting natural resource restoration and protection on America’s public lands and waters. DOI’s action comes on the two-year anniversary of Secretary Sally Jewell’s directive for a new approach to large-scale planning, better efforts to mitigate impacts and to protect places that are too special to lose. In addition, the Presidential Memorandum directs the Department to finish a suite of additional mitigation and banking policies that will provide clearer and consistent guidance on Bureau of Land Management lands and for endangered species, and for other wildlife that might become endangered in the future.
As communities across the country experience the impacts of climate change like increasingly severe wildfires, droughts and extreme storms, they are also having devastating effects on America’s natural resources. While President Obama has taken bold action to protect our land, water and wildlife, new partnerships and innovative solutions are needed to address the increasing costs to our natural resources. Today’s announcements are a critical step forward for finding these solutions to truly protect our natural treasures for future generations.