6 May 2015 | Not all versions of mitigation are created equal. In fact, equivalency and standards are the fundamental challenges facing the mitigation banking industry today, according to Michael Sprague, founder of the ecological restoration firm, Trout Headwaters Inc, operating out of Montana.
“As disparate as the issues in the industry are, it comes down to those two issues,” he says.
Mitigation banking, which is the restoration and creation of a stream, wetland or wildlife habitat as a compensation for environmental loss elsewhere, delivers a high-quality product in terms of ecological and regulatory benefits, Sprague says. Banking provides conservation in perpetuity, ensuring full compliance with regulatory requirements. But Sprague says there is a lack of high standards in mitigation today and it’s leading to “a race to the cheapest and most expedient form of offsets,” thus creating the biggest risk to mitigation banking.
It’s one of many issues that Sprague will have a chance to address this year. At this week’s National Mitigation and Ecosystem Banking Conference (NMEBC), he will become the new National Mitigation Banking Association (NMBA) president.
This year’s NMEBC, which takes place in Orlando and runs from May 5th to the 8th, has a data-focused element to it. Sprague will play a part in this by hosting a workshop on the latest version of Mitigation Analyst 2.0, a data and analytics system for mitigation and conservation banking.
“It’s a down-and-dirty user workshop that enables folks to really leverage all of this data when they leave the conference,” Sprague says.
After the conference, Sprague is looking forward to a dynamic year building on what he considers to be the success of his predecessor Wayne White. He recently talked with Ecosystem Marketplace about the aforementioned issues as well as on other topics related to his new position and mitigation banking.
Ecosystem Marketplace (EM): What key issues are shaping this year’s conference and the coming year?
Michael Sprague (MS): There is a different tone this year and one that is much more cooperative than in the past. We’re going to expand markets and look for opportunities for advanced compensatory mitigation. The NMBA has also been a huge provider of support for conservation banking so we’re now seeing opportunities in that area. We’re also seeing opportunities for banking in other markets like nutrient credit trading. The Emerging Markets session at the conference will be focused on these types of issues.
For me, over the year, I’m looking to build a five year strategic plan with the help of the (all volunteer) Board of Directors. The plan will dovetail with the Association’s newly hired Executive Director but basically, it will ensure that all the various assets we have, like volunteer time, staff and so on, is leveraged in a way that serves membership in the end.
EM: Can you talk a little more about what you view as the biggest challenges facing mitigation banking today?
MS: Banking sells a high quality product. It’s not a promise, not a prospect but a product. There’s no temporal risk or regulatory risk, which means that we’re not only able to save permittees and agencies time but we’re also able to deliver the highest possible environmental outcome. So the risk to our industry is what I call the race to the bottom. It’s the risk that the cheapest, lowest quality mitigation solution becomes the preferred mitigation alternative. Unfortunately, you can see that risk in some of the programs and offsets today in the US. The broad risks are reasonably consistent: a lack of standards or poor quality standards combined with a lack of equivalency for mitigation methods.
A lot of the problems I encounter could have been solved by simply choosing advanced mitigation with consistent high standards that ensures equivalency in its offsets.
EM: What are your key objectives as president?
MS: This is going to sound dull and boring but we need to put together a strategic plan and create a board member manual among other similar tasks. But I see my key objective as to help the Association grow membership and to work with the Board to deliver benefits to the members. We’ve seen a 12% growth over last year so if we continue to do these two things well, then our future remains bright. Because when we increase our membership, we gain intellectual capacity, the quality of our work improves and our ability to carry out initiatives becomes more efficient. A lot of hands make a lighter lift.
EM: The NMBA recently hired its first Executive Director, Barton James. What does this mean for the Association?
MS: It’s a great step forward to have 24/7 representation to add to our administrative, lobbying and volunteer efforts. We now have someone who is able to guide the ship day-to-day. And specifically, Bart brings us a real depth and expertise in Washington D.C. and I’m excited for what that means for membership.