Landscape Scale Restoration: Speeding Up the Process

By Bailey Troth, Conservation Markets Intern

Ecological restoration works best when it restores whole landscapes to a state where wildlife habitat and ecosystem services like carbon sequestration rival those that they provided prior to significant impacts from development and agriculture. Different habitats like streams, wetlands, and forests complement each other in sustaining biodiversity, regulating and purifying water, and sequestering carbon. Restoration projects which operate at a landscape scale and reduce the fragmentation of natural environments are more effective at restoring and sustaining these critical ecosystem services than small-scale, individual restoration projects. 

However, landscape scale restoration projects pose organizational and jurisdictional challenges that make them more difficult to implement than small-scale restoration projects. Landscape scale restoration demands innovative funding and permitting approaches, like pay-for-success, programmatic permitting, and multi-agency permitting teams. Looking at a few landscape scale restoration projects that have struggled to work with a speed that matches their scale will show how these policies could help.

Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)

Congress passed the Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000, aiming to restore the extent of the Everglades wetlands by redirecting water along its historic course from Lake Okeechobee through southern Florida. CERP kickstarted efforts to restore the Everglades, but after early funding and congressional support died down the pace of restoration under CERP became unacceptably slow. For the first two decades after the passage of the plan, restoration projects languished in the planning stage. Just 6 of 68 planned projects were in progress by 2017. Only this year, after a substantial pickup in speed and funding, has the National Academy of Sciences reported that some projects are seeing completion and operation. The pace of Everglades restoration needs to increase even further to counteract the effects of climate change, which threatens to inundate parts of the Everglades with salt water.

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has directed nearly $3.5 billion toward restoration projects in the Great Lakes region since 2010. The Restoration Initiative has made significant progress on cleaning up heavily polluted Areas of Concern and restoring wetlands across eight states. Funds from the Initiative have also doubled the area under enrollment in agricultural conservation programs. However, the Great Lakes still suffer from harmful algal blooms and many of the region’s wildlife species are still under threat. In states like Michigan, slow and sometimes arbitrary permitting processes have long slowed down restoration work, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative does not resolve this.

Puget Sound

Alongside ongoing state-level restoration work organized by the Puget Sound Partnership, President Obama created a Federal Puget Sound Task Force in 2016 to organize restoration efforts, which was accompanied by $250 million in funding from Congress. This program has contributed to recovery in 10 of 37 “vital signs” identified by the Puget Sound Partnership. However, inefficient permitting has hampered success in some areas. A 2019 survey of local salmon restoration organizations found that nearly half of organizations surveyed had faced permitting delays. An overwhelming majority of those who had faced delays reported that the delays had a moderate to severe impact on their projects’ success. As of 2020, Puget Sound Partnership lists Chinook salmon populations as “not improving,” a status which could be improved by avoiding permit delays to increase the efficiency of restoration.

Chesapeake Bay

During the 20th century, overharvesting and pollution destroyed many of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s historic oyster reefs and seagrass beds. According to one estimate, the oyster population has suffered a 97% decline since the 1800s. Efforts to restore the Bay made little progress until 2009 when President Obama set the goal of restoring 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries’ oyster populations by 2025 and issued an executive order to provide federal coordination for restoration efforts. Federal cost-share agreements and strong public support have helped Chesapeake Bay states fully restore one tributary and make significant progress on four others. This progress is laudable, but due to a slower-than-expected pace of restoration, the target has been reduced to 10 tributaries by 2025.

These programs have supported important restoration work across vast regions of the country, but have faced difficulties with lack of sufficient funding and slow implementation. To facilitate more effective and widespread landscape scale restoration, policymakers should develop permitting efficiencies for large-scale restoration projects and leverage private sector funding through tools like pay-for-success and environmental offsets. 

Some states with ongoing landscape scale restoration projects are making progress in these areas. For instance, Maryland’s proposed Comprehensive Conservation Finance Act (SB 737), which the Maryland senate recently passed unanimously, will build on existing private sector conservation pathways, like pay-for-success, environmental bonds, and carbon offsets. These funding methods have already directed $4.2 billion of private assets towards conservation in Maryland. The bill would also create an advisory council to work on streamlining permitting. Another Maryland measure, the Chesapeake Clean Water Commerce Act, allows the state government to directly purchase nutrient load reductions from the private sector. These measures will help Maryland work more efficiently to restore Chesapeake Bay, but other states in the Chesapeake Bay area should advance similar legislation to create consistent restoration funding and permitting improvements across the whole landscape. 

Washington’s legislature recently passed two bills, HB 1382 and SB 5381, to speed up permitting for salmon habitat restoration projects by creating multi-agency permitting teams to review salmon restoration projects and initiating interagency dialogue on expanding programmatic permitting and other permitting efficiencies. HB 1382 specifically includes projects which receive funding from the Puget Sound Partnership or Federal Puget Sound Task Force and would allow these projects to go forward with a single, state-level permit rather than the multiple local permits they might otherwise need. This streamlining will increase the pace of restoration work in the Sound. The bills are still awaiting signatures from the Governor. 

Michigan has established a separate permitting pathway for voluntary restoration projects and created a working group of regulators and restoration project proponents to increase permitting efficiency, which will help reduce delays for projects under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in that state. California’s Cutting Green Tape initiative will also streamline permitting for landscape scale restoration by increasing the utility of programmatic permits for large scale projects. Programmatic permits authorize a type of project across a whole region, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Cutting Green Tape will also provide permitting pathways for large scale projects to obtain permits at the state rather than local level. 

Future landscape-scale restoration efforts should build in permitting efficiencies and private sector inducements from the ground up. New federal restoration initiatives could include a multi-agency permitting team to address permitting issues for restoration projects. This would provide a space for relevant agencies like the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, and others to work together on creating and applying programmatic permits to restoration projects in the affected region, and individually permitting projects which don’t fall under them. They could also include pay-for-success financing like that included in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay programs, allowing federal agencies to directly purchase pollution reductions or improvements in ecological indicators in a competitive market. These policies would help speed up restoration at the landscape scale, helping to restore ecosystems that have been degraded by human activity to their original makeups and functions.

The proposed Driftless Area Landscape Conservation Initiative (DALCI) 2.0 is a good example of a proposed landscape scale restoration project that could benefit from these policies. The first DALCI succeeded in restoring 25 miles of trout streams and reduced sediment runoff by 175,000 tons, but left much work undone due to lack of funding. Wildlife Action Plans in the Driftless Area states have identified 147 restoration actions that could be funded under a new initiative. When developing DALCI 2.0, relevant agencies should consider coordinating with each other on permitting and providing projects with programmatic or streamlined permits alongside funding. They should also consider using pay-for-success financing for some projects in order to stretch their funding as far as possible.