As published at the EcoBlu Blog of Trout Headwaters International: “The Debutante, Larry and the Cynic”
My review of the National Mitigation Banking Association Conference in New Orleans, 2013. What’s important enough to take through till next year…
First-time attendee’s of the NMBA annual conference come to learn about mitigation and conservation banking – it’s been said the three days are like taking a drink from a fire-hydrant. They come back in year two for the people: there are some charismatic characters in this industry, and they really know their stuff. After four years, like myself, you start to pick up the trends, and notice how things might be changing, or not changing. You want to see how the Industry is doing, how the problems and solutions have progressed. You want to see if you can tell where the industry is going and what the future will be like.
And it would seem that the 2013 conference in New Orleans in early May delivered a sense of this, and one that got me thinking.
Speaking at the opening session was Mr Larry Selzer, the President and CEO of the Conservation Fund from Arlington VA. Titled “The Future of Banking – a National Perspective” this was a keynote address to remember. An engaging mix of motivation, compelling statistics on environmental loss and mitigation needs, and a wide-angle perspective on natural science in general, his words were befitting of a national-conference opening by an excellent public speaker.
But it was the air of change he represented, in industry outlook and potential; that future-facing trend I’d returned for. Larry was just the first in a clear trend as the conference went on over the week, towards the industry ready to look outwards of itself.
We were in the south after all so I was reminded of a debutante emerging from the growing pains of refining metrics, innovating practices, coordinating parameters and rules, and delivering enforcement – to now a mature system able to deliver results, manage it’s risks and work through processes towards positive outcomes. And now, Larry urged, look to a wider future. Now, he urged, was the time to take this to the next stage – other environmental impacts, and other environmental problems. He wanted to see “a little more Silicon Valley, and a little less Old-school Utility”. We’re clearly old enough to have catch phrases now.
He put mitigation and conservation banking in a refreshingly large-scale context, and talked about the wider problems the environment faced – the science behind it is so poorly understood by the general public. He talked about a “Gulf of Incomprehension” and the paucity of science news in major outlets. He talked about bringing understanding and explanations to those who don’t currently access it. He implored new tools and new language to make this happen: “Words Matter”.
The Journalist in me quivered.
What’s more, he suggested mitigation banking as the industry to be part of this wave of awareness and education: “define our industry as the business of restoration, not accommodation… be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
It made mitigation banking sound like it had a role to play, not just in the tight-knight regulatory and economic development circles, but now in larger society. He brought a sense of unity that was at the same time both unexpected, and well-timed. As someone had confided in me, “It can sound like an echo-chamber in here sometimes”.
This kind of higher purpose is a winner as far as motivation goes – everyone likes to feel like they are part of something. It’s human nature. Particularly given the previous years during the development of mitigation banking when practices were still developing, regulations were still being implemented, problems were being ironed out. The NMBA conference could feel like a hostile place with competing bankers and wary regulators cautious of the interest and intentions of one another. There was a lot at stake – limited money and threatened ecosystems on both sides.
Time has shown though, there are regulators, mitigation bankers and land managers that can, and do, bank mitigation exceptionally well. It’s a real industry now, with a legitimate place amongst conservation and environmental restoration. And it sound like we could, and should, take it wider and higher. Such is the future for this debutante.
And then the cynic surfaced.
One Keynote does not a conference make, and there were plenty of sessions in the days to follow that were equally telling. We see great strides being made in data reporting – but see also that only a small proportion of credits are actually sold. There are still hundreds of thousands of dollars, and acres, not secured away. Credits sales are slow, investments are still cautious, and we still talk of regulations and guidelines to take some of the risk down to more manageable levels.
And there are those who turn away disappointed from a session or two – it’s old material, it’s speculation dressed as fact, or it’s simply not getting to the heat of the problems they came to solve. They’re left feeling that there simply aren’t solutions to their most pressing problems available to present. That kind of sentiment is certainly not good for any industry, especially not one that wants to grow and expand.
Are we too quick to call ourselves a Market; are we more simply an industry. We do not trade commodities; credits are not readily swappable among participants, and there is no secondary markets. It’s a bilateral trade at the most. And it only exists off regulations, not off a desire to purchase. Can this market basis be so ignored if we’re to ensure the long-term viability of our market-based system?
Are we celebrating too soon? Would we get further, achieve more if we addressed our short-comings more than trumpeting our successes?
Perhaps it’s all part of the debutante.
She has arrived, but her road has just begun. And it’s all about looking outwards now too. We celebrate her achievements and her potential – she’d not go further without it a little motivation, platitudinous, ostensible or otherwise.
Like the debutante, the Mitigation Banking Industry will likely falter without a little reality check too. Both she, and Mitigation Banking, will still need to question themselves and keep an eye out for the problems that will form tomorrows important solutions.
So next year, I look forward to seeing both the motivation and out-reach, Larry Selzar-style. It is on point and forward-moving. But I’ll be looking for the cynic too. He might not any more right in opinion, but just as important for growth. As the mile-post of this dynamic, innovative and risk-heavy industry, I hope the Mitigation Banking Conference continues to invite and foster both. Join me in looking out for it next year too.