Environmental markets can be added-value proposition
$144 billion flows through those markets worldwide
By STEVE BROWN
TUMWATER, Wash. -- In the 1970s, the first successful environmental market for sulfur dioxide led to a dramatic reduction in acid rain in the northeastern U.S.
Since then, other markets have developed to address water and air quality, wetlands, carbon and renewable energy.
All of these markets, in various stages of evolution, hold opportunities for farmers and ranchers to reap added profits without removing land from agriculture.
"This idea of selling environmental services, we wanted to see how real is this now and in the near term," Don Stuart told a group of interested people at the Thurston Conservation District office in Tumwater.
Stuart is the Pacific Northwest director of American Farmland Trust, which is based in Seattle. He has worked with Evergreen Funding Consultant President Dennis Canty and Katherine Killibrew of the University of Washington to assemble the "Guide to Environmental Markets for Farmers and Ranchers," published by American Farmland Trust.
In a series of six such meetings around Washington state, Stuart and Canty described how environmental markets are growing and how farmers, ranchers and conservation professionals can become involved.
Canty said such markets in 2009 accounted for about $387 million in the U.S. and $144 billion worldwide.
"These are driven by environmental regulations," he said. "Regulatory agencies allow flexibility in meeting limits. It's no longer just mitigation on site."
For farmers and ranchers, the attraction is a dependable added income stream, Stuart said.
"From a conservation perspective, the markets encourage environmental improvements where they might not occur otherwise. ... The markets most likely will grow," Stuart said.
Environmental markets benefit everyone, he said. Public agencies, private businesses and developers meet regulatory standards while landowners derive added income and the environment is improved.
For example, conservation tillage practices can supply water quality credits, riparian restoration can produce habitat credits and rotating fallow seasons can generate water quality credits.
Because farmers already own the land, "it's a bargain to have them participate," Stuart said. "But they have to be involved in writing the rules and designing the programs. ... It's important we get this right. There's a lot of farmers just hanging on by a thread."
Canty said the best immediate prospects in Washington state are methane digesters, irrigation efficiencies and wetland restoration. Longer-term prospects are buffer restoration, changes in tillage and fertilizer use, wind and solar generators, and habitat restoration.
Landowners can turn liabilities on marginal land into assets, Canty said. Eroded areas can be converted to riparian zones, boggy areas can become restored wetlands and thin soil can be designated as flood plain.
Jay Gordon, a sixth-generation farmer and executive director of the Washington Dairy Federation, described how 53 acres on his land have been designated as habitat for migratory trumpeter swans. "It's a unique easement for a specific purpose."
Gordon said the land is still available for his use; he can still "graze, mow, flood or burn" it. "The Endangered Species Act can be an opportunity instead of a threat," he said.
Yielding total control over one's own land can be an emotional decision, Canty said.
"If you make a farmer a business proposition, he'll react like a businessman," Canty said.