A friend of mine, Wayne White, was the head of the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Field office back when wetland and species banking was really taking off in California. Today he works as a consultant to companies from Texas to California, helping them set up banks and programs in areas where there are new species and new areas of wetland to be conserved through mitigation and conservation banking.
I spoke to him recently. It’s been several years since I worked with him in the USA, but it takes just seconds for us to get back into our rhythm of policy and species. We talk projects and ‘mitigation bankers’ and large infrastructure developments that need to mitigate their impacts – those that offer a window for mitigation bankers to piggy back the creation of a new species bank or two.
For the last two years running, Wayne has headed the National Mitigation Banking Association. There isn’t too much Wayne doesn’t know about this topic, and I’ve been lucky enough to see it through his battle-weary eyes for many years.
Wayne is working with one of the companies in Texas I used to – Advanced Ecology. He tells me there have put together a proposal for the world’s first Ocelot Bank. The Ocelot is one of the species of animal that makes this world a beautiful place. They are a small feline, like a mini kind of leopard to the lay-person. This secretive, nocturnal, poorly understood cat roams between the USA and Mexico and does a whole lot less roaming since the boarders fence went up and development continued to remove habitat.
When I was working for Advanced Ecology, I was looking for new areas and new species for them to build banks around and conserve. It was exciting, but hard work. A sweet spot of economics, environment and policy have to exist to make a new bank possible, but once I found the right combination in one location, it was exciting to see what was possible when I handed a proposal over to the scientists, rangers and project managers I worked with. They built beautiful conservation properties as the end result.
With youthful enthusiasm, I decided that the Ocelot – this rare, poor conserved, poorly understood species – could be one of our next projects. It was tucked away in the corner of South Texas, right on that treacherous border with Mexico, and it was pushing the envelope of species banking. I dug as deep as possible, and could prove the ingredients needed for a banking project existed for ocelots in their key area:
- Immense conservation need,
- Little public conservation resources,
- Prime habitat in private hands,
- Biology that requires habitat be restored and conserved,
- Legal precedent with the Florida Panther,
- And active development projects, present and planned, to buy the credits to fund the project.
It was a few years ago, and although Terry and Troy of Advanced Ecology’s Marketing and Development team loved the work I’d done, the rest of the company found it a bit too left of field.
But in 2016, Wayne tells me they are pursuing an Ocelot Bank. I am ecstatic. Wayne is excited too. He tells me that he headed into the local Fish and Wildlife office with their carefully researched and executed proposal (Advanced Ecology have been doing this a while now and really know their stuff) and put it in front of an old Head-of-Division colleague.
Wayne tells me of his pride as he put forward a complete project outstripping what this government department has been doing for years. They were accessing privately-held habitat government agents couldn’t even approach (this is gun-toting Texas after all), offering a conservation project complete with long-term funding, and all this without relying on any public money.
Advanced Ecology has been able to deliver their projects faster and with sustainable funding. Now, it’s clear to note that this project alone will not bring back the Ocelot from the brink of extinction. It will not replace the need for Fish and Wildlife to be intimately involved with it’s recovery. But there are things that time and again, the USA Mitigation and Species Banking industry has done things others have not, and added an extra spanner to the conservation tool-kit.
My elation was tinged with sadness. I’m really happy for the Ocelots. I’m really happy for Terry and Troy who listened to my project years ago, even though it couldn’t fly then. And I’m really happy for Wayne who spends the end of his career putting species back into habitat (and this is cool habitat for a very cool species).
But I am sad for New Zealand. I want to run a conservation project that doesn’t drain further public funds, and that actively puts more habitat and species back on the conservation dial. It’s no mystery to me how to do it. I could see the potential for the Ocelot 5 years ago. I want to see that very same thing for our native forests and our native species.
Offset Banking in New Zealand would look very different to the USA – on an environmental, legal, regulatory and industry level. But the results are possible. Like the USA, New Zealand might have to go through some growing pains (and some mistakes along the way get there) but we’re lucky to have great international examples to learn from. Most importantly, we have some great conservation gains to be made, and the one thing each end of the political and environmental perspective can agree on is the need for more environmental gains, and new ways to fund them.
In 2016 I want to find people in New Zealand who are just as excited about a new way to conserve the Ocelots as I am.