Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Too Lucrative to Resist

I'm nothing if not open-minded. The "free market" may have done unspeakable violence to virtually everything I hold dear, but if experts insist that market forces now have the ability to undo these catastrophes, I'm willing to listen. Whatever skepticism I may have about the viability of a Paracelsian economics, in which like magically cures like, I'm willing to put it aside in order to consider the pros and cons of relatively new concepts like mitigation banking.

So far, the gap between theory and practice in mitigation banking seems to be pretty much what you'd expect from an erratically regulated arrangement between government and developers. Elsewhere, I discussed how Wal-Mart had exploited mitigation banking in order to ruin two pieces of land for the price of one. Now, it looks like a mitigation banking scheme in Michigan is headed for a similarly bleak outcome.

The owners of a landfill in Wayne County have an option to buy 445 acres of stunning Lake St. Clair marsh. But there's a hitch: They're offering to purchase and protect the privately owned coastal marsh along Anchor Bay if the state compensates them by allowing them to fill 31 acres of wetlands at Woodland Meadows Landfill in Van Buren Township.

If approved, the traded acreage would add to the state-owned St. John's Marsh along the coast of northern Lake St. Clair. It's a rich habitat of prairie and wetlands that is a haven for wildlife, birdwatchers, hikers and hunters. It also acts as a massive sponge-like filter that cleanses pollutants from water flowing into the lake and controls flooding in nearby communities.

The deal might be too lucrative for the state to resist, even though it would void a conservation agreement made years ago by Waste Management Inc. to protect the Woodland Meadows wetlands. It would also skirt an informal policy that such trade-offs be made within the same watershed so that there is no net loss of wetlands to any one ecosystem.
"Too lucrative to resist," indeed. This is little better than extortion, and it reflects poorly on us that we've conducted our national affairs in such a way that a garbage company can hold any portion of our vanishing wetlands hostage. The basic standard for mitigation banking is that it should prevent a net loss of wetlands. A conscious decision by government not to meet that standard calls the entire concept into question, to say the very least.

The Woodland Meadows wetlands were placed into a conservation easement as part of the deal that allowed the landfill to open; apparently, that deal also allowed the easement to be terminated at Wayne County's whim. And oddly enough, the easement "was put in place despite the fact that the acreage was in the landfill's long-range plan for expansion."

So if I understand this correctly - and I really hope I don't - Waste Management puts 31 acres of wetlands into an easement, in return for permission to open a landfill; it gets a stipulation that the acreage can be used for waste disposal if "necessary," which happens to dovetail nicely with its stated plans for expansion. Having decided expansion is indeed necessary, it's now offering to trade Lake St. Clair marsh for Woodland Meadows.

Fair enough. One can only hope that the agreement protecting Lake St. Clair marsh turns out to be a bit more legally binding than the one protecting Woodland Meadows was.

Obligatory information on Republican malfeasance can be found here.

2 comments:

Speechless said...

Amusing that we can kid ourselves to believe that doing odmething good will take away the reality of also doing something not good...as if the bad thing never happened. Look I'm going to kick you in the stomach, but it will be at the same moment that I'm giving you a lollipop, so you won't need to notice that I'm kicking you in the stomach. Later when the lollipop's all gone, you still have a stomach ache, and now you can't figure why.

Is that what PT Barnum meant about a sucker born every minute? I suspect that our grandchildren will regret the notion of "mitigation banking" and our failure to see the bad of what's being offered as good.

Phila said...

Speechless,

Mitigation banking could work nicely. A lot of experts are behind it, and even its biggest foes concede it's got a lot of potential. But as usual, corruption gets in the way.

How hard would it be to do the right goddamn thing once in a while? Why do all these viable ideas end up in a race to the bottom, morally speaking? And the really big question, to my mind: How is it "rational" - as free market enthusiasts always claim to be - to ignore human nature? As usual, we're supposed to ignore reality, and worship an abstraction.