I have referred to the American No Net Loss Policy when describing the Disney Wildlife Preserve, but I didn’t go into much detail on the subject.
So this short post will hopefully give you a better understanding of the policy.
President Jimmy Carter gave the first legal protection to wetlands in 1977, however in this bill government agencies only had to try and take steps to avoid damage and minimise impacts on wetlands.
However by 1989 it was established that greater protection was required to halt the fast increasing loss of american wetlands to agriculture and development for settlements. By 1984 half of all of America’s wetlands had been drained or filled totalling a loss of 117 million acres.
This led to George H.W. Bush signing into legislation the American No Net Loss Policy as part of the Clean Water Act. This carries the legal requirement that:
“wetland losses must be offset by wetland gains in terms of actual acreage and, to the extent possible, ecosystem function.”
US Fish and Wildlife Service
The scheme continued to grow under new presidents, with Bill Clinton pledging in 1998, as part of the updated Clean Water Act, that there would be a net gain of 100,000 acres of wetlands annually.
And there was some success with the scheme, between 1998 following Clinton’s pledge and 2004 250,000 acres of forested wetland had been created. This was one of the causes for George W. Bush on Earth Day 2004 to claim that the No Net Loss Policy had been successful and that there was a net gain of wetlands for the first time. Unfortunately this trend didn’t continue.
Having declared the scheme a success George W. Bush then went on to announce a new policy to create an additional three million acres beyond those that are being lost.
This scheme sounds excellent and it would seem that before long the No Net Loss Policy will soon have created more wetlands than America knows what to do with.
However the scheme has a shadier site, it does not prevent the destruction of wetlands it just forces people to replace them. But there is no real legislation surrounding what you have to replace them with, it may not be a like for like replacement. The wetlands you create might not even be in the same state as the wetlands being destroyed. This mitigation is what led to the existence of the Disney Wildlife Preserve.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that oversees the No Net Loss Policy is still issuing 90,000 permits a year for wetland use or change of use.
There is vocal opposition to the policy, and I found one particular case study particularly interesting. In 1997 a development company fronted by two brothers proposed a $250 million project to build a luxury condominium complex on Pensacola beach in Florida.
Within the proposed site were 11 acres of saltmarsh that had been designated as important to the functioning of the Santa Rosa Sound. For their scheme the brothers applied for a permit to fill 6.5 acres of the saltmarsh.
Several federal organisations such as the USFWS opposed the project as did a committed group of local activists. What happened next has the whiff of conspiracy theory and paranoia on behalf of the opposition. Rumours suggest that the two wealthy brothers used their contacts to override the USACE engineer assigned to the project in order to get permission, whether this happened or not I have absolutely no idea.
Anyway the long and short of it is that they received permission for the project, on the proviso they created two new marsh habitats on the site which they did. Once again the opposition claimed that these were nowhere near the original marshes with regard to functioning.
Next comes the part of the story I enjoy the most, shortly after the completion of the project in 2004 hurricane Ivan swept through the area. By doing so Ivan deposited a large amount of sand not only within the lobbies of the condos themselves but also in the constructed marshes. Here comes the real gem in this story, as USACE deems hurricanes an act of God there was no requirement for the filled in marshes to be restored! So in the history books of USACE there was no net loss of wetlands associated with the project although you’ll be hard pushed to see any there now. Information on this project was taken from the following book chapter, make of it what you will its very one-sided.
Now make of the story and the various scandals what you will it does seem to highlight some issues surrounding the efficiency of the No Net Loss Policy. Scientific research has also shown that it can take between 13 and 33 years for a constructed wetland to reach the equivalent functioning of the natural system it replaced.
However even with its pitfalls, it would appear that the policy is slowing the rate of wetland loss and given time may even reach net gains. And any scheme aimed at protecting these ecosystems and the valuable services they provide can only be a good thing.