Pay Dirt: Restoration Economies Uncover Gold (and Green)

Increasingly, elected leaders are recognizing the economic opportunity of promoting a "Restoration Economy," the development of economic activities, such as jobs and increased tourist revenues, that stems directly from restoring damaged natural resources. Restoration activities and projects are typically divided into two sectors: restoration of the natural environment, such as ecosystems, watersheds, mining land, and forests, and restoration of the built environment, such as brownfields and superfund sites. Restoring and rehabilitating communities and natural environments is estimated to be a $1.5-$2 trillion a year global investment opportunity.

In 2006, the Western Governor's Association recognized the potential of restoration economy and passed a resolution reaffirming their commitment to the restoration economy and urging Congress and the Administration to invest in restoration. A few months later, in June of 2006, Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer held a Restoration Forum, with the legislature soon allocating $34 million for restoration program development, including a dedicated office of restoration, just one of the most prominent examples of states moving forward on the issue.  

Progressive States Network has partnered with Western Progress to examine the potential for building a restoration economy in the Mountain West region and this week, we have jointly released a new report and policy summary:

Building a Restoration Economy:
Legislation and Practice at the State Level

and a summary
Policy Options for State Legislators

This dispatch will present the highlights of that report and also the great potential for economic development, ecological restoration, and job development that restoration economies can provide.

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Benefits of a Restoration Economy

To highlight the benefits to states from developing and promoting a restoration economy, Western Progress in October sponsored a 2-day workshop in Missoula, Montana that brought together various stakeholders to discuss ways to promote restoration policies. The conference examined various practices in forestry and watersheds, as well as how to develop good, well-paying jobs through restoration projects, including visiting the Milltown Dam restoration site, one of the largest dam removal and restoration projects. In preparation for the conference, Progressive States Network produced a survey of each of the restoration practices in the eight states of the Mountain West that became the basis of the report we are releasing this week.

A commitment to a restoration economy not only provides a stronger environment, but creates well-paying jobs that strengthen local economies. In one example, the Brookings Institution analyzed the benefits of restoring the Great Lakes Ecosystem and found that restoration would result in $50 billion of economic gain, including:

  • $6.5-11.8 billion of direct economic benefits from tourism, fishing, and recreation alone
  • Raising coastal property values from $12 billion to $19 billion
  • Reducing the costs, such as drinking water treatment, to municipalities by $50 to $125 million
  • Significant, though unquantifiable, additional economic activity by making the area more attractive to business and workers.

Restoration policies bring together diverse stakeholders, including business, labor and environmental interests around policies to reclaim land and resources that may have been previously unusable due to high pollution content. These policies not only increase the value of the restored land, but provide a viable future for young people in areas previously thought exhausted of economic opportunities.

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States' Best Practices

The report released by the Progressive States Network and Western Progress has an in-depth analysis of currently existing best practices. A few of the notable highlights include:

Programs can even be as simple as adding a restoration program to the check-off list for individual contributions from tax returns. Colorado's Watershed Protection Fund was added as a check-off in 2002 with funds going to a grant program for watershed restoration and protection programs.

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Regional Development and Federal-State Partnerships

Regional cooperation is also vital to developing a healthy restoration economy, particularly because natural resources, such as forests and watersheds, do not stop at state borders. 

For example, the Estuary Partnership Habitat Restoration Program brings regional perspective to restoration work in the lower Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, Congress passed the Great lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act, which emphasizes regional restoration projects that impact multiple states and tribal lands.

The Southwest Forest Restoration Institutes are great examples of regional partnerships that also promote internal academic program development. The Institutes are a collaboration of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, the Forest and Watershed Institute at New Mexico Highlands University, and the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. Not only do the institutes promote regional cooperation, but by supporting and developing academic involvement in restoration, they bring more money into states by securing research funds and providing training and leadership for the next generation of restoration experts.

The Five Star Restoration Program was established by the EPA and provides grants to communities for restoration projects that have at least five partners that also have training opportunities for students and at-risk youth.

In 2002, the definition of Brownfields -- land that has been polluted or contaminated -- was expanded under federal law to include mine-scarred land, or land that had been scarred by years of mining and extractive practices. Thus, state-based mine remediation projects are now eligible to apply for federal Brownfields money for clean up of contaminated mine land. The Mine-Scarred Land Initiative has helped reclaim scarred lands in Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

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We've highlighted in the past the benefits of labor organizations joining forces with environmentalists. Developing a restoration economy will result in good, well-paying jobs and environmental rehabilitation. In fact, not tapping into the potential of restoration work is the same as just throwing money and opportunity away. Successful restoration programs bring together multiple stakeholders and encourage regional cooperation and development. The time is ripe for states to hit pay dirt and reap the benefits of a vibrant restoration economy.

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