Corporations and conservationists aren’t always on the same side, but green infrastructure is one area where they can find common ground, said speakers at Wednesday’s keynote at The Wildlife Society’s 24th Annual Conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
From Katrina to Sandy to Harvey, they noted, hurricanes have shown that natural landscapes can be more resilient than manmade infrastructure, but undertaking those natural infrastructure projects isn’t always easy.
The presentation, “Business Fundamentals for Restoring Natural Infrastructure,” sponsored by Caterpillar Inc., brought together leaders from Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Caterpillar to discuss the importance of these partnerships to build green infrastructure, benefiting communities, wildlife and business.
“You may be wondering, ‘Why Caterpillar?” said Kathryn Spitznagle, director of sustainability for Caterpillar. “At Caterpillar, we know a little something about infrastructure. Our goal now going forward is to make sure natural infrastructure is part of the solution.”
Spitznagle joined Tom Moorman, chief scientist at Ducks Unlimited, and Lynn Scarlett, worldwide managing director for public policy at The Nature Conservancy, to discuss how business and conservation organizations can work together.
“The Nature Conservancy’s mission is conservation of people and nature,” Scarlett said. Natural infrastructure is one place where they come together, she said, and it can be “better, cheaper, smarter and greener” than artificial approaches.
Ducks Unlimited has similar goals, Moorman said. Ducks are only part of the picture of the work his organization does, he said. The protection of the wetlands that ducks and waterfowl call home results in a range of other ecological services, including coastline protection.
The challenge, speakers agreed, is figuring out how to expand from small projects to larger ones. Scarlett pointed to Nature Conservancy projects to restore oyster reefs, dunes and sea marches, returning natural features to coastlines that make them healthier and more resilient.
“Where we want to go with The Nature Conservancy and other partners is really to scale up these efforts and make them larger in themselves,” she said. “We need to make natural solutions not an afterthought.”
Rules and policies can stand in the way, Spitznagle said, sometimes calling for lower-cost solutions that are more problematic in the long run.
Often, infrastructure work starts with dredging, she said. The least-cost option may be dumping the material back into the water, she said, but “what makes a lot more sense is to take that dredge material, cleanse it, transport it and reuse it.”
Moorman urged biologists to engage in discussions with those outside their field to help overcome those obstacles.
“Here we are at The Wildlife Society [Conference],” he said. “What if The Wildlife Society took a message like this or had a session like this with engineers or economists? There are all kinds of folks who are part of the solution. Once that dialogue starts, you realize, hey, we have a lot of similarities.”
In some cases, corporations understand the benefits of natural infrastructure. In Louisiana, Moorman said, ConocoPhillips is not only a major player in the petroleum industry. It’s also the largest landowner of coastal wetlands, and those wetlands are disappearing.
“They reached out to us and said, ‘What can we do to restore the coastal wetlands?’” he said. “They’re obviously interested in what’s below the wetlands, but they’re also good stewards of the land. They invest a couple million dollars a year in restoration of the wetlands that they own. We help them deliver those restoration techniques.”
Even Ducks Unlimited has found restoring habitat can be a money-maker, he said. It has purchased wetlands, restored them and sold them at a higher price with conservation protections in place.
“I think natural infrastructure is the now and the future,” Scarlett said. “It doesn’t do everything everywhere, but there are just huge opportunities.”