10 strategic actions for balancing nature, costs, and risks in development projects.
Clients often struggle to balance environmental protection, control their costs, and reduce risks. They ask us for guidance on these matters at a growing rate. Mistakes are costly and often irreversible. Solutions that integrate natural resources with hazard reduction are increasingly cost effect in the short and long term. But these solutions have to be planned and implemented correctly. In the aftermath of the SE Asia tsunami there was high interest and investment in mangrove restoration. At least 80% of the efforts failed. Poor planning and implementation, planting of mangroves in unsuitable habitats, planting of wrong species are among the reasons why. These kinds of mistakes can be avoided. Here are 10 practical and strategic “how to” actions that are based on our experience.
1. Do no harm. In a time when nature is under threat, there’s often an unstated assumption that attempts to restore biodiversity and ecosystems carry no negative consequences. But building with ecosystems can have harmful effects if projects are not properly evaluated or carried out. Introduction of non-native species, attempting to establish species or ecosystems in unsuitable habitats, restorations that create future health or economic risks are not positive actions and need to be avoided. Assess the positive and potential negative impacts of any nature-based project.
2. Identify the problem/problems to be solved. It is not unusual for clients or entities to define an important part of a problem the face and fail to articulate their deeper expectations or needs. Defining the problem is more challenging than generally perceived. Spend time in assessing the full suite of issues on the table to be solved, and the role that ecosystems can play in solutions. This will take more time than you imagine but it is one of the most critical steps. Otherwise you may solve the wrong problems or priorities, albeit very well.
3. Identify and assemble the best-qualified team. The previous step (2) will enable you to define the expertise and skillset needed for the team. For instance, when working on endangered species issues as part of a major and controversial restoration, our client initially felt that we needed a panel of endangered species experts to resolve problems associated with their potential extinction and recovery. However, as we worked to understand the issues more deeply, it became clear that involving habitat experts, hydrologists and engineers would be critical to finding a solution. By engaging the best and a complete team we were able to provide real and workable solutions. We were also able to get to solutions quicker because the right team was in place. Be comfortable knowing that you will likely have to reach outside your domain for the right expertise - just because you don’t know it doesn’t mean it’s not important. The right team matters.
4. Listen to the community but be professional. Community concerns, knowledge and wishes must be taken into account. Otherwise the risk of failure is high. However, for modern challenges, these projects need the best of human know-how. They are and should be considered professional undertakings that will involve expert knowledge, high-level skills, and professional judgment.
5. Understand the system or systems. Invest in knowing the system. What are key dynamics, drivers, current conditions and likely system performances overtime and under different scenarios? What ecosystem services are expected? What is the likelihood that the project can deliver them and at what levels of performance and confidence? How will the ecosystem interact with all the other activities and developments? Addressing these kinds of questions generate long-term solutions.
6. Risks and Uncertainty. Be honest with clients and communities about the risks and uncertainties. These are the two elements that most frame their decision space. Individuals and entities are more able and comfortable making decisions when these presented to them. Too often risks are identified without uncertainty or vice versa. Situations where risks are high and there is high uncertainty require different decision-criteria to situations of low risk and high uncertainty.
7. Identify the range of options that offer solutions. Consider tradeoffs, costs, and expectations associated with each option. For instance, an ecosystem-based approach may be at best an experimental solution. This can be a viable and ethical option if the community is informed, on-board, and proper precautions and monitoring are included. Where possible evaluate the benefits and losses associated with an ecosystem-based, a hybrid (ecosystem-engineering mix), or engineering solutions.
8. Address practicalities. How workable are the solutions given factors such as governance, regulations, scale, community acceptance, financing or other restrictions? Evaluate each alternative in relation to practicalities, and articulate the range of solutions to communities and clients.
9. Prepare all elements of the project for implementation. Prepare appropriately, especially when projects require many inter-dependent steps.
10. Monitor and report. Monitor the results. Use an adaptive management approach so that current and future projects can learn from the effort and in order to continually improve decisions and implementation. Report transparently, clearly and often to clients/stakeholders.
Net-Positive for the Environment: New Approach to Comprehensive Ecological Restoration through Offsite Mitigation
Compensatory mitigation is now a standard part of the permitting and implementation of projects that affect the environment. The principle is straightforward: environmental impacts from permitted projects must be avoided and minimized, and all unavoidable impacts must be offset or “compensated” through regulatory programs. In the U.S., the regulatory frameworks to offset these impacts have grown from the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act which offer the same overarching premise: “no net loss” of valuable environmental resources and habitat. Other nations have similar approaches.
Traditionally, impacts have been offset by “permittee-responsible” mitigation, which entrusts the permittee (e.g., a developer) to undertake proper ecological restoration and enhancement themselves. Success with this approach has been low because these restoration projects are often isolated, small in scope, and provide little overall habitat connectivity and poor ecological uplift. The obvious lack of independence frequently raises concerns and, at times, leads to litigation. A different approach allows for overall impacts to be pooled and implemented by a third party (e.g. an environmental firm) into a larger offsite mitigation plan, allowing for a much greater restoration potential and habitat recovery.
Working on projects all over the world, Deborah Brosnan & Associates has incorporated the “no net loss” concept and expanded it to include a “net environmental positive” element. This approach focuses on offsite mitigation and restoration plans that offer value to the environment as well as value to the client. A comprehensive offsite mitigation strategy allows clients to offset permitted impacts while providing a meaningful environmental benefit and in a more cost-effective way. One of our clients has a large permitted coastal development project spanning over 500 acres that has inevitable and permitted impacts to marine species and native vegetation. Traditional mitigation as a species-by-species or site-by-site effort would, in this case, yield little uplift of critical ecological functions. Our studies indicate that a piece-meal mitigation approach would further fragment the habitat and disrupt the development itself, leading to higher costs, investment loss, and little environmental benefit. Instead, by working with our client and the local government, we’ve been able to craft a solution that is meaningful to all parties as well as the environment. An offsite mitigation plan realizes an immense opportunity to restore and enhance large and damaged salt ponds that are adjacent to development site. These salt pond habitats have been degraded by previous human interference such as road building through the ponds, pollutant runoff, and dumping of debris. Salt ponds serve an important role in providing habitat for birds, fish, and shellfish as well as serving as storm buffers to nearby communities. Restoration of this habitat will include site clean-up, replanting of mangroves, and restoring tidal flow. These restored benefits offer an opportunity to increase nesting habitat for least terns and sea turtles, enhance mangrove islands that have all but disappeared from human and storm activity, and provide beneficial recreational and educational opportunities for visitors to the site.
These efforts fundamentally increase resilience on the island. Monitoring-based performance measures will be included in an environmental management plan to provide a basis for continued improvement and lessons-learned that can be used by other projects. We plan more complete reporting on this exciting effort, in the meantime contact us if you want to know more about our approach.
Meg Fullam, M.S. Environmental Science and Policy
Three More Reasons Why Mangroves Should Be an Integral Part of Coastal Development Strategy
It’s no secret that scientists and conservationists are alarmed by the loss of mangroves around the world, as these ecosystems provide valuable storm protection and water filtration to tropical coastal areas. A recent study reveals that there’s additional value to incorporating mangrove habitats into coastal development and management. Described below are three more reasons mangrove restoration should be incorporated into coastal development strategy:
Of course mangroves have many other recognized values:
Cited: Rogers, K., et al (2019). Wetland carbon storage controlled by millennial-scale variation in relative sea-level rise. Nature, 567 (7746), 91–95. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-0951-7
70 years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted the right of all to share in scientific advances. How is it working out?
Seventy years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 27 enshrines the universal right to science: Everyone has the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits*
Many scientists are unaware that UDHR singles out science. But most would agree that sharing science is part of their work. Publishing peer-reviewed articles and contributing to the review process is embedded in our training and is an expectation. But we live in a world of inequalities, on a planet in jeopardy, where unprecedented scientific progress is pitted against political attacks on findings. It’s time for a hard look at science as a human right.
Right and Duty
The right to share in scientific advances and benefits does not stand alone. It demands duty and responsibility.
Science through the UDHR lens
Society has generally viewed science as the pursuit of knowledge by scientists and the use of that knowledge by others. “Others” include governments and the private sector Those roles blur, and not necessarily in the most effective ways.
Climate change is a stark example. In the US, scientific results are now at odds with the Administration’s policy. Last week, the White House summarily dismissed a landmark analysis compiled by 13 federal agencies. The National Climate Assessment report found that that climate change poses a severe threat to the health of Americans as well as to the nation’s infrastructure, economy and natural resources. Recent losses have included $33billion in agricultural and transportation losses in America’s Heartland during the 2012 droughts, and $17billion in electricity infrastructure in Puerto Rico during the 2017 hurricanes. Scientists, fearing for the fate of the planet and its people, are increasingly shouldering the responsibility for sharing findings and for promoting the use of scientific analysis and facts. They are necessarily becoming advocates for science and for action.
But governments face tough decisions. The US federal science program has resulted in tremendous advances through agencies like NASA where satellite technology has saved lives through forecasting and responding to extreme events. The NIH has transformed medical understanding and treatments. How much data should the US freely share and especially with countries that have few resources to allocate to science? How does the US balance the release of knowledge against other interests of its citizens or against considerations of national security?
How do we balance the right to sharing in scientific advances against intellectual property rights and address the tensions between private sector R&D and philanthropically-driven science? The private sector has responsibilities to its shareholders. The doctrine of corporate responsibility seeks to address societal responsibilities but has not gone far enough to provide a coherent or widely adopted approach. It can fall to foundations created by private sector leaders to assume responsibility for the human rights dimension. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports access to and benefits from scientific advances by implementing the studies and programs that reduce diseases in developing nations.
Scientific and governmental bodies have been exploring these issues, and they are a major topic in academia. In 2010, the American Society for the Advancement of Science recognized the human rights dimension as fundamental to its mission and began engaging scientists in defining these rights. In 2005, UNESCO began a process for defining the right to science and in 2018 released a list of 28 questions related to addressing the right to science. But clearly completing these tasks is proving to be challenging.
The UDHR was adopted three years after the atomic bombing of Japan that ended World War II. The use of science in that process is still vigorously debated. The ethical responsibility of scientists in fields such as molecular biology, biodiversity, cloning, and AI is a thorny topic. Science, if acted upon through the UDHR framework, will demand responsibility from all levels and sectors as well as vigilance and action. It is time for a more coherent understanding of what that means, what we can agree upon, and what actions we must all take together.
*UNDHR Article 27: Right to participate in cultural life. “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
A social and environmental wake up call for corporate America: 3 Actions to take now to avoid a crisis in your company.
How Charlottesville is a larger signal to American Companies
It began with the resignation of Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, from Trump’s Manufacturing Council over the President’s stunning remarks on the violence at rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. It cascaded. Other CEOs followed him and within 24 hours seven had left the group.
On Wednesday, the members of the Strategic and Policy Forum, another elite industry group formed to advise the president on economic issues, agreed to self-disband. Before their announcement Trump himself eliminated both business Councils. It was a political case of, if my boyfriend’s coming over to break up with me, I’ll text him that we’re history, and tweet the breakup.
These were CEO’s who had stood by the President, remaining on the Councils even as he enacted policies that they didn’t always like. They stood by him when he pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. They stayed during the Immigration ban even though many depend on talent from overseas. Charlottesville was a step too far. It affected Americans and on American soil.
The CEOs and companies represented on the Councils were under great pressure from their shareholders, employees and the public to take a stance, especially companies that seemed slow to respond. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was targeted, Advocacy groups marched to the Manhattan headquarters of JP Morgan and Blackstone to deliver a petition signed by 400,000 people urging them to sever ties with the White House. Several companies scrambled to issue statements assuring the public of their corporate values.
The stunning and rapid fall out is a wake up call to Corporate America. A social-environmental accountability movement is underway that will have major consequences. Today’s is a sophisticated, globally-connected, technologically-savvy and quick to mobilize world. Consumers have spent their lives on social media where group consciousness spreads ever more quickly. Corporate ethics on social and environmental issues will be increasingly scrutinized, judged and acted upon.
This places U.S. and multi-national companies firmly in the spotlight. Some are seeing the trend. Jamie Dimon, (CEO of JPMorgan) in a recent letter to shareholders described trust as America’s secret sauce and he worries that the bottle is running dry. Companies need to pay attention. The public and shareholders will increasingly ask: Does a company live up to its own diversity policies? Does its rhetoric on environment and sustainability match its actions? Does it take measures to reduce emissions? How are its workers treated?
Companies can be proactive to reduce their social-environmental risks or they can scramble to manage the fallout. There are three actions that a prudent company can take today:
Don’t wait for the spotlight to fall on your company. If you have exposure you are already in someone’s crosshairs. It’s a matter of time before you read about yourself in the media and find that you have to respond. CEOs, executives and boards constantly tout the value of effective leadership. This is a good opportunity to put it into practice and help the company avoid a crisis.
Several peer companies have been putting social-environmental practices in place for years. For example, Levi Strauss and Unilever, both multi-national in their activities, have enacted strict standards for workplace and environment.
Design or adapt social-environmental standards and corporate policies that are smart, meaningful and strategic for your company. Good environmental and social practices do not mean poor business ones. Levi Strauss and Unilever’s profits are improved, not harmed, by their responsible practices. Take charge to adopt Company policies before less favorable ones may be imposed by the public, judges or legislation.
The current social and political upheaval gives corporations a unique opportunity. Those who embrace the trend and the mood of the public can build recognized and appealing brands that demonstrate sound financial sense while paying attention to environmental-social factors that their consumers want. But that window of opportunity is narrow. Don’t squander the limited time. Act now.
Yesterday, at three o clock, the crescendo of “Will he or won’t he? He can’t, can he? ended with “ He just did.” Surrounded by nature’s greenery and a brass band, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. That decision brutally ended the era of complacency, and firmly established the nouveau environmentalism
Our years of environmental complacency came, not from disinterest, but from a sense that we’d found more common ground, that our administrations were paying attention, and that leaders including some in the private sector were taking care of the environment and business. While conflicts certainly persisted, we didn’t feel compelled to rise up. The dramatic protests notable for activists spending years sitting atop ancient trees, spiking trunks slated for logging, sinking fishing boats, and other vandalisms had given way to calmer discourse.
Complacency is over.
The nouveau environmentalism that Trump in essence, if inadvertently, enshrined yesterday shares some traits of the past but has four modern features that will define us into the future.
2. New Activism and Litigation
Already, many of the Trump Administration’s environmental decisions have galvanized a new activism. Scientists, better known for staying put in their labs, are taking to the streets in protest. Environmental groups are mobilizing and litigating. Donors are quick to support them. The Center for Biological Diversity expects to file five times as many lawsuits in 2017 than in the previous year.* A recent study found that 894 climate change cases have now been filed in 24 countries, 654 of them in the United States, and with environmental groups winning most of them**. Governments have been the primary focus of litigation but that is changing. Companies and the financial institutions that support them are being increasingly targeted and this trend will continue.
Threats of investor-lawsuits and pressures on company boards are becoming commonplace. Any company that has environmental vulnerability either in the USA or internationally is probably already in someone’s crosshairs. Financial institutions too. Regulation by litigation and growing risks to institutions are contributing to a new awareness and in some cases new leadership
3. New Environmental Leadership
Leadership and consequential decisions are moving away from the federal domain. States, cities, corporations and communities are eager to show initiative and take action. Within hours of Trump’s announcement yesterday, California, New York, and Washington formed a Climate Alliance; 68 US mayors pledged to uphold the Paris agreement. Across the USA, institutions, companies and CEO's publicly vowed to continue climate change agreements. IBM released a statement showing its commitment and actions taken for the environment. The first tweet of Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, was to decry Trump’s decision to renege on the Paris agreement. Internationally, China made an agreement with California to work together on climate change, the EU and China made a similar alliance, while Putin declared Russia's support for the Paris accord.
Some companies have been pursuing sustainability for years and without much fanfare. Levi Strauss instituted global water saving initiatives to help sustain people and the planet, and they did it without cost to their bottom line. Expect these kinds of companies to showcase their efforts more and be willing to have them scrutinized.
4. Technology-based and solution oriented interventions
Today’s environmentalism is focused on interventions and solutions. We are far more willing to embrace options that are based on science and technology than ever before. It’s no longer sufficient to study the problem or leave nature alone to solve it. Whether it is renewable energy, emission-reducing technology, seeding artificial reefs, or combining ecosystems with engineering to protect coasts and purify water, we embrace the need for human intervention. Nouveau environmentalism is firmly anchored in protecting nature and the planet in order to manage transition and sustain our health, prosperity and children. This is a big shift from the past approach, and it will continue to catalyze technological innovations and investor choices.
In a brief few minutes, Trump’s announcement crystalized how environmentalism has changed and elevated it into the mainstream.
In 1916, Irish poet and Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats wrote about a small uprising that, through the bad decision of a government leader, became an independence revolution:
“All’s Changed - A Terrible Beauty is Born“
Yesterday, all changed in America and a new era was born. Welcome to the nouveau environmentalism.
* Kieran Suckling Center for Biodiversity quoted in Visalia Times Delta article by Ryan Miller April 2017 http://www.visaliatimesdelta.com/story/news/local/2017/04/20/scientists-marching-just-start/100710810/
** Study released in May 2017 by United National Environment Program, Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in New York.
All the I’ve listened as the Trump Administration asserts that rolling back environmental regulations and weakening the EPA will unburden industries and bring prosperity to communities. It won’t. Instead, it will usher in an era of regulation by litigation. We’re not entering an epoch of unregulated industry activities, as many fear. Instead, industries are headed for a period of greater uncertainty and risk, when their ability to operate and make reliable financial forecasts is threatened. Environmental groups feeling compelled to prevent what many see as disastrous actions on pollution, climate change, and energy policy are mobilizing. Communities will be caught in the middle.
Americans by and large don’t like the notion of “regulation” but they do value their environment and the health of their children. Over 70 percent of Americans want the U.S. government to act on climate change. Recent polls found that 70 percent of voters support strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants, 76 percent believe carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant, and 56 percent oppose withdrawing from the Paris Treaty*. I’ve worked with communities and industries that have no time to engage in climate-change rhetoric because they are too busy trying to find solutions to its tragic impacts.
As Americans have demonstrated time and again when their core values are threatened, they act. They take their complaints to the courts.
The U.S. has a robust judicial system. It relies on evidence. That includes scientific evidence. The Daubert Standard, for instance, ensures the quality of science and scientific experts allowed in courtroom evidence. Even if politicians and agency leaders deny scientific evidence, judges cannot. Peer review trumps political ideology. Scientific results demonstrating environmental damage, threats to human health, and climate-change consequences can determine the outcome of legal battles. The fate of natural resources, industries and communities will rest heavily on decisions made in courtrooms around the country. Expect environmental groups to use the court system effectively.
Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. The bitter forestry wars that raged throughout the west coast subsided only less than a decade ago. Job losses in forestry were first attributed to overzealous environmental regulations, but it soon became clear that they were due to automation and industry changes. Conservation groups felt that agencies were not doing enough to protect natural resources. Alarmed by the rate of forest depletion and its effects on water purity, stream health, and biodiversity, they repeatedly sued agencies and the industry. Often, environmentalists won.
Litigation is expensive. Companies clearly spent many millions of dollars, although amounts were often not disclosed. The Department of Justice spent at least $46.9 million on defending the EPA alone between 1998-2010. The Department of Treasury paid an additional $15.5 million in reimbursement of plaintiffs attorney fees and costs between 2003-2010. Other agencies, such as the Department of Interior, likely had similar or higher costs
During this time, I worked in helping to resolve environmental disputes through science. I saw industries that were unprepared brought to the edge, some even going under. I worked with one landowner who actively sought to balance conservation with forestry. Banks, he explained, were reluctant to lend money that would allow him to shift to more sustainable harvests because the risk of environmental litigation made his forecasts too uncertain. If environmental regulations are impulsively rolled back, and climate-change denied, this will be our new normal. Communities will reap no benefit from having old jobs return; they almost never do. Few may know that jobs in clean energy outnumber those in fossil-fuels by 2.5 to 1 and are growing at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. Just as traditional forestry jobs did not rebound, neither will fossil fuel ones.
Environmental groups have hired extra lawyers in recent months, declaring that they are ready to go to court. Many are seeing increases in donations to support these efforts. The Sierra Club reported a 700 percent increase between November and February; the National Resources Defense Council received 50,000 donations in November alone. Already one suit has been filed. Last week conservation groups and the Northern Cheyenne Native American tribe of Montana sued the Administration for violating the National Environmental Policy Act when it lifted a moratorium on coal leases on federal land.
Good regulations can build community. Many companies have found that they can achieve more, reduce business costs, and establish mutual trust and cooperation when legislation is clear and incentivizes all parties.
Litigation is a divisive tool for environmental decision-making. Those of us who have been in its trenches know too well the true costs and consequences. Companies need to re-assess their risks in this new world of regulatory uncertainty, and be strategic in defending their bottom line while promoting good corporate citizenship. Several companies have already stepped-up and called on the Administration to continue America’s established leadership in environment and climate-change. Industries have a chance to act now in order to protect established trust, and forge new solutions before the courts impose them. Environmental groups are stepping into the breach, industry and government will be their certain targets.
Original published on Huffington Post as an Impact piece.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58e40b82e4b09deecf0e1b42
Seagrasses help to protect human and coral reef health by reducing levels of disease causing pathogens
There’s a new reason to value seagrasses, and to include them in coastal restoration and mitigation- human health. Seagrasses reduce the abundance of disease causing pathogens.
Seagrasses are know as vital nurseries for commercial fish, for their abilities to maintain beach sand, and are emerging as valuable assets in the blue carbon economy. In tropical waters, like the Caribbean Islands, they are closely associated with coral reefs and sea turtles and conch. Seagrasses have been in decline globally often associated with coastal development, including marinas and dredging of their habitat for ship channels. In many States and island nations seagrass restoration has been required to mitigate damage or carried out by conservationists and or homeowners seeking to protect their property
A peer-reviewed study just published in Science* a team of scientists found that seagrass may benefits that we had not fully realized- human health.
In a peer review study recently published in Science a team of researchers found that
How can this information make a difference? Seagrass establishment can be incorporated into mitigation and restoration. For instance,
1. Seagrass Restoration in polluted areas - - Seagrass can be successfully restored- there are several methods that that proven to work. For those involved in coastal and salt pond restoration, especially in areas of runoff or that are adjacent to septic issues, adding sea grass restoration could make the difference between healthy and unhealthy waters and beaches.
2. Coral Restoration: All around the tropics communities and governments are working to restore coral reefs and to stem the loss of existing corals. Disease is a major factor in coral decline. Choosing restoration sites that are adjacent to coral reefs, or restoring seagrass adjacent to reefs could vastly increase the potential for coral recovery.
J. Lamb et al, Seagrass ecosystems reduce exposure to bacterial pathogens of humans, fishes, and invertebrates Science 17 Feb 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6326, pp. 731-733 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal1956
A little known Act could upend environmental protection in favor of border wall construction and trigger a cascade of consequences in the US.
As a US delegation arrives in Mexico City, the 1,900-mile border wall is on everyone’s mind. Issues focus on cost -a recent report estimated it could be as high as $21.6billion- construction and who will ultimately pay. The border environment, mostly overlooked in the furor, is the wild card. It could be the most important one.
The US-Mexico border region is straddled by rich ecosystems like the Sonoran Desert and the Rio Grande Valley and is home to species that, unaware of national boundaries, move freely throughout their ranges. The US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that building the wall will further threaten 111 endangered species and 108 migratory bird species. It will divide four wildlife reserves on the US side and several others on the Mexican side. Jaguars, bighorn sheep, ocelots, and bears are among the cross-border species at high risk.
Scientists are concerned because splitting habitats and isolating populations promote a decrease in genetic diversity associated with higher risk of diseases and epidemics. Isolation raises extinction risks due to small population size. It also creates conditions for genetic divergence between isolated populations.
There is much at stake for the border environment. Here is where I’d normally cite the Endangered Species Act, (ESA), Environmental Impact Assessments (under NEPA) and other regulations as ways to balance the needs of environment, natural resources and construction. But not so.
In 2005 the little known REAL ID Act was signed into law. Designed to govern the kinds of official IDs accepted by US government to combat terrorism, it contains a provision allowing waivers of any and all laws that interfere with construction of physical barriers at the borders, and that are necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads. Waivers are at the discretion of the Secretary for Homeland Security. ESA, NEPA, and at least 35 other environment-based statutes can be and have been waived for previous border infrastructure.
In 2007 waivers were used to speed up construction of a 35-mile wall adjacent to a Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, where multiple agencies have worked cooperatively to recover Sonoran Pronghorn, causing concern that the achievements could be undermined. In April 2008, more than 30 laws were waived to complete 450 miles of border infrastructure along Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Even if the environment is disregarded, the resulting environmental effects of a massive border wall are likely to ensnarl existing and future projects in the US, and blindside interested parties.
Decisions under laws like ESA often take account of the abundance of and threats to species and habitats in nations adjacent to the USA. A wall dramatically alters the situation, putting greater burdens on federal and state agencies to account for the resulting isolation in managing cross-border species affected by barriers. In 2014, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition to delist the threatened California Gnatcatcher, arguing that the bird is not a true subspecies. The filing was based on DNA evidence indicating that gnatcatchers, which are scarce in California, are not genetically distinct from the abundant populations of gnatcatchers south of the border in Mexico. The plaintiffs argued that this warranted removing ESA protection. The bird has been a thorn in the side of developers and others in Southern California since it was listed in 1993. (It remains listed). A similarly based petition has been filed to delist the SW willow flycatcher which breeds in several border states and in Northern Mexico
Genetic similarity within populations of a species is based on an ability to move and breed freely with other individuals in the absence of a barrier. A wall can change that. In other words, a barrier will create exactly the kinds of risks that warrant listing and protections of species that become isolated. The Mexican genetic argument used goes out the window with a wall.
The REAL ID Act has been used to erect barriers along sections of the US-Mexico border without environmental review. It was never intended for such a huge project like Trump’s Wall. Environmental groups and others anticipating disastrous and undocumented environmental harm under the REAL ID Act, and fearful of greater ecological damage under the current administration are already galvanizing.
As an independent consulting scientist, I facilitated solutions to environmental wars that waged in the USA on endangered species, forestry and land use. Battles, often bitter and costly, had until now diminished from peaks reached in the early 2000s. The REAL ID Act gives almost absolute power over the fate of species and natural resources to a political appointee and that raises deep concern. The border wall may triggers a new cascade of legal and other environmental actions. Scientists and environmental lawyers need to be strategic and ready.
Reproduced with permission from Huff Post
Image: US-Mexico Border, threatened California Gnatcatcher, Sonoran Desert, Pronghorn (courtesy USGS, USFWS, R Pierwotny- desert (wikipedia).
Like many, I feel like a small item in the washing machine of change being churned around in a fast and vigorous cycle, uncertain whether I will make it through or end up as the lost sock. Anchors are hard to find. Friday’s presidential inauguration makes unprecedented uncertainty official. But the event is only part of a disorientating journey that communities have been on for decades.
As humans we need anchors. As change accelerates, familiarity disappears. Not long ago a cloud was a fluffy heart-shape in the sky. Today it is the unseen source of all data and knowledge that is everywhere and nowhere at once.
Science is one of our strongest and most steadfast anchors. Unique among all sources of information, its knowledge and facts are available and the same to everyone regardless of political beliefs or values.
Science is one of humanity’s highest achievements because it is based on the acknowledgement that humans have biases and values. Its methodologies are designed to remove these biases in order to provide the most objective and independent knowledge. Scientists constantly evaluate each others’ work, questioning the rigor of the methods, the strength of evidence in conclusions, and looking for articulation of uncertainty. They do so to ensure the standard of knowledge. We have relied and trusted this process for decades and rarely has it let us down.
When some American rivers were so polluted that they caught fire, science provided the answers for clean up that helped their communities. Rigorous scientific review prevented thalidomide from entering the US market as a treatment for pregnant women suffering from morning-sickness. Millions of babies were saved from the horrific defects suffered by European children where the drug was permitted. Thalidomide-era babies are now the age of many representatives in congress. Science does not make moral choices but it gives each of us, and our institutions, the information on which to base and evaluate moral dilemmas. Paradoxically, denying science takes away the foundation for individual and societal values.
Today we see efforts to fray away the ropes of science. Yet, what parent wants to take an ill child to the emergency room and be treated by a person in a white coat who professes to be skeptical of science-based medicine, not trained in the profession, but completely confident that they can save the child?
But if science is an anchor, it is largely invisible and misunderstood. I have been fortunate to apply my science around the world, among the highly educated and in places where high-school education is still a rarity given to few. I am always humbled by the privilege afforded me, aware of the thirst for information that people seek in times of distress, and cognizant of the responsibility I bear.
The reality is that most people aren’t scientists and haven’t spent years immersed in science’s nuances and methods. And no one makes a decision on science alone. We balance our needs and beliefs and we do the best we can. Today as our world feels upended, we are more uncertain about the actions that match our values or whether we are doing the “best we can”. As it has done in many areas from environment and human health to national security, scientific knowledge can help us navigate these times and evaluate whether our choices align with our values and our desire to do the best for our children and communities.
We are entering unchartered and turbulent waters. Science will continue to be challenged. Good scientists are needed as compassionate conduits for evidence-based knowledge – the antidote to the fear and divisions that are the dark shadow of change. Without science, societies’ morality and future are threatened. Friday is the inauguration of a new era including for scientists who must be part of America’s and the world’s guidance system.
Reproduced kindly from Huffington Post Opinion