Education

American amazon

 By RP Siegel

It’s not entirely clear what is more impressive about the Restore the Earth Foundation’s ambitious agenda—what they intend to accomplish, or how they intend to go about doing it. Restoring one million acres of degraded lands in the Mississippi River watershed is certainly an audacious challenge. The organization is finding support across a broad range of disparate constituencies, particularly businesses, demonstrating a potent way forward for conservation…

(Cover photo by www.misspreservation.com)

The Mississippi River watershed is enormous, encompassing 1.2 million square miles, covering portions of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Hence, the name North American Amazon. The economic importance of the region is beyond measure. If river traffic were to stop, famine in Africa would begin within six weeks. Beyond commercial navigation carrying both imports and exports up and down, the river provides billions of gallons of water per day for irrigation and other essential purposes. Hundreds of wildlife refuges line the river and its floodplain, and recreation is a huge source of revenue for countless communities lining its banks. There is no separating the environment from the economy here.

Yet, the Mississippi River Basin is the most ecologically degraded area on the continent. Of the 24 million acres of forest that greeted the first American settlers, only 5 million acres remain. As for wetlands, in Louisiana alone, their loss occurs at such a rate that an area the size of a football field disappears every hour. Wetlands play a major role in supporting fish and bird populations, but they also protect inland areas from the impacts of a severe storms, a fact that was largely overlooked until recently. Wetlands disappear for a variety of reasons, which mostly boil down to agriculture, development and pollution.

PJ Marshall and her husband Marvin, became aware of this situation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm damage, which extended 100 miles past the coastline, severely impacted over 5 million acres of forest, destroying roughly 320 million trees. After successful careers, the Marshalls were preparing to retire and looking for a cause to get involved in. Marvin Marshall had served as President and CEO of Bramalea Limited, a North American real estate development and management firm, in which role he oversaw more than $1 billion in land development projects. PJ, had been a long-term strategic planning consultant to companies in the energy services industry. Recognizing both the severity and the opportunities presented by this issue, they instituted the non-profit Restore the Earth Foundation (REF).

Based on his experience, Marvin Marshall recognized that to get support of the business community for a project like this, they needed to quantify the numerous benefits in straightforward, bottom line, dollars and cents. He proceeded to develop the EcoMetrics™ model which captures the many diverse value streams that accrue from this work. The model, which is compliant with global standards for ecosystem services, and is aligned with Social Value International among others. This model shows that every dollar of investment in landscape restoration, if properly managed, will return nine dollars or more in financial, social, manufactured, human, natural and intellectual value. Armed with that information, they soon gathered substantial support for the first project, restoration of the 4000-acre Pointe-aux-Chenes Bald Cypress Forest Wetland, which will provide a “last line of defense against the threat of increasingly harsh storms and floods” to the 250,000 people in Louisiana’s Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. The region also has the largest concentration of under-served communities in the nation.

Courtesy of Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Partners in this undertaking include the US Business Council for Sustainable Development, companies, including Shell, Entergy, CITGO and VMWare, and public partners including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Lower Mississippi Joint Venture, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The groundbreaking took place on October 27, 2016. At a time when Federal support for environmental initiatives in the US seems less likely, REF’s business-oriented funding strategy should remain resilient. PJ Marshall told Eniday, “Most of our funding comes from corporations [they do receive a small amount of government support]. We realize that, from a corporate standpoint, they have a vested interest in ecosystem health, because anything you can think of that is produced, has a natural resource base somewhere. They also have the resources, are much more nimble, and they want to stay in business long term.” The business case provided via the EcoMetrics™ Model made it far easier for the sustainability champions within the sponsoring companies to sell this to the people at the top. In the case of the Pointe-aux-Chenes restoration project, a $5 million investment, will provide $168 million in value over 40 years.

“In landscape scale restoration, you have both habitats and communities that you want to enhance into a self-sustaining system".

What exactly is landscape restoration?

Marshall said, “In landscape scale restoration, you have both habitats and communities that you want to enhance into a self-sustaining system. You have to look at this vast, diverse ecosystem and take a long-term perspective on how it’s restored. So, we’re really addressing the environmental, economic and social concerns all at once, which requires a tremendous amount of expertise. US Fish & Wildlife Service has been working with various agencies and scientists on this question for the last 15 years. They help us select the sites for the million-acre restoration and to identify what actions would be needed for each site.” Remedial actions will include hydrological modifications as well the restoration of native species, where appropriate. Fill material from continuous river dredging can be used to shore up eroded areas. Adjacent agricultural lands are also considered in determining the compatibility of the restoration plans. These integrated plans take into account the interests of all stakeholders.

Marshall says that the plans are in place for the entire million-acre project. Starting with the Pointe-aux-Chenes restoration, they will continue to restore sections of the watershed as funds and resources become available. When completed, the total restoration effort will reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 2 percent, lower the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico by 12 percent, and inject $12 billion in value to local economies.

SEE MORE: Building a pipeline by Nicholas Newman

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.