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Biodiversity Farming and Restoration for Profit
Alex Steffen, 14 Apr 05

You've probably never heard of the California vernal pool fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi). Don't feel bad -- they don't get around very much.

In fact, these tiny crustaceans live out their entire lives in vernal pools in places like California's Central Valley: little puddles and ponds which come and go, often drying out completely in the summer.

The problem is that these ephemeral wetlands, as they're called, have been hammered by agriculture and development. The result? Fairy shrimp are now a Federal threatened species, wobbling at the top of a steep slope down to extinction. This creates no end of problems for people who have land with vernal pools on it which they wish to turn into more farms or QuickyMarts.

Enter the Dove Ridge Conservation Bank. Dover Ridge offers "mitigation banking" for fairy shrimp:

Dove Ridge appears to be just an average stretch of the upper Sacramento Valley -- almond orchard surrounded by well-grazed pastureland. Dove Ridge's real wealth, though, [is] in the 233 acres of shallow pools inhabited briefly during the year by tiny fairy shrimp. The 1/2-to-1 1/2-inch- long crustaceans with antennae and 11 pairs of paddlelike legs live in shallow sheets of brackish water, known as vernal pools, and also occupy a spot on the threatened species list. The tiny shrimp are worth big money to Dove Ridge, which sells credits for $70,000 apiece to developers in Butte and eastern Tehama counties to fulfill their requirement that their projects minimize harm to the two species.

"We were profitable in our first year," said Steve Mardigian, manager of Loafer Creek LLC, which owns the 2,400-acre Dove Ridge spread and its 466 development credits. ... Conservation banks allow developers to fulfill their requirement to mitigate the effect their projects have on sensitive habitat by purchasing "credits'' at off-site locations where similar habitat is preserved in perpetuity. For developers, it's often less expensive to buy the credits than to try to save the habitat on the project site.

Now, I have grave reservations about mitigation as a conservation strategy. It seems to me that too often mitigation as now practiced means in reality the destruction of functioning natural areas and the creation of artificial replica ecosystems which have less value than the original. In part this stems from our appalling ignorance of the natural world: I'm not sure we know enough to replicate ecosystems of any kind, and the mitigation schemes which exist often reduce the complexity of what must be saved down to a handful of species. A manmade pool full of fairy shrimp is not necessarily anything like a wild, teeming vernal pond.

That said, I suspect that we are seeing a glimpse of the future here. That future? Biodiversity farming and ecosystem restoration for profit.

One thing that's been made abundantly clear this year is how much our civilization relies on nature's bounty -- its biodiversity and ecosystem services -- for its continuation, and just what a stress we're putting on the planet. As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported, we've already thrashed 60% of the Earth's ecosystems, degrading their ability to provide the things we need like clean water and fresh air, while millions of species are thought to be on the road to extinction. I strongly suspect that in the near future, as the direct practical impacts of loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services make themselves felt, we're going to start seeing a variety of schemes to put value to natural systems.

This may be a great idea. The way to save species and protect clean air and water may be to recognize that they can be measured, given value, and taken care of. If the dichotomy is "places which are useful to us" vs. "places we leave alone", the second category will always be smaller than it ought.

But what if we reimagined wilderness, not a metaphysical category, but as a special kind of farm, a kind of farm which grew not crops, but biodiversity and ecosystem services? Both are valuable. Ecosystem services are irreplaceable, and bear a real dollar value in the trillions. And as we move into the biomemetic tech bloom, biodiversity becomes our most important natural resource. As Janine Benyus explains, "When we view nature as a source of ideas instead of goods, the rationale for protecting wild species and their habitats becomes self-evident. In the end, I think biomimicry's greatest legacy will be ... an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."

(Actually, bioprospecting -- searching the planet for species which have traits which offer clearly valuable biomimetic or genetic properties -- is already a going concern. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, "biologists are already looking for species that might hold new answers" not only by studying forests and lakes close to home, but by "prospecting in hot springs, ocean beds, soda lakes and on the Arctic tundra." Some of that prospecting crosses the line into piracy. Many valuable plants and animals have long been part of local medicinal cultures. When scientists exploit local knowledge for profit, a form of legal theft ensues. This is not only unjust, it also undermines a key reason for native peoples to protect their local biodiversity.)

But if local people can hold on to the rights to the economic value of local species, that creates a powerful incentive to farm biodiversity, especially if poor people are helped to find ways to feed their families without destroying local ecosystems. In a similar way, if governments recognize the value of ecosystem services through tax breaks and regulations, farming clean water or good soil might become profitable.

Putting dollar values to these "critters and flows" will also help make working rural landscapes more profitable. It's pretty hard still to make a living practicing sustainable forestry. Even with eco-conscious consumers willing to pay a premium for guilt-free wood, small foresters who are in the business for the long haul are at a disadvantage when stacked up against big corporate "cut and run" outifts. Putting a price tag on clean water, healthy forests and stable soils might change that, though. Same's true with neo-biological agriculture, sustainable fishing, and environmentally-safe ranching. If we make preserving wild nature valuable, those who are already trying to do the right thing will have a jump on the competition.

So while factory-farmed fairy shrimp may not be a perfect fix now, Dove Ridge may be a harbinger of better things to come.

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Like so many innovative ideas, this one contains a crucial question - to what purpose will we put this?

If we start to value ecosystem services and biodiversity enough to pay for their maintenance and restoration, that's great. I'd start a second career.

If this is a means of enabling further material growth, and resource-and-energy consumption, it's not so great. Then it's just a band-aid.

Alex, you make that clear in your posting - that this idea has merit IF it's meshed with a view of ecosystem restoration as valuable for its own sake. Do you think it will be? Or is this like the medieval custom of buying "indulgences" - exoneration from sins through payments to the Church?

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Apr 05



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