- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

For every overfished ocean reef, every polluted bay, clear-cut forest and degraded ecosystem on the planet there should be someone like Keith Bowers out there fixing it up — and there soon could be.

Crews from the ecosystem-restoration company he heads, Biohabitats Inc., often can be found floating face down in the Chesapeake Bay in wet suits and snorkels, grabbing eelgrass plugs from a floating cooler, then swimming down two feet to four feet to stick them in the Bay floor.

Replanting eelgrass lost to pollution won’t restore the Bay to its original clean, healthy condition — at least not by itself — but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s also a lucrative one. Mr. Bowers’ firm is part of a growing phalanx of private companies that make their own green by restoring wetlands and other habitats.

Just a niche market in the 1980s, ecosystem restoration has surged in the past five years, with announced multiyear projects exceeding $70 billion worldwide and annual revenues in the United States of more than $1 billion a year, industry sources say.

“From an ecological restoration standpoint, there’s something on the order of tens of billions of dollars in the pipeline just in this country,” says Mr. Bowers, who also is chairman of the Society for Ecological Restoration International in Tucson, Ariz. The group has 2,500 members and 14 international chapters — most added in the past decade.

Some projects are easy to count. The Chesapeake Bay restoration is a multiyear, $19 billion cleanup project, Mr. Bowers notes. Another mammoth project is the Everglades wetlands restoration in Florida, with $8 billion appropriated. Billions more are being spent in the United States on restoring estuaries, watersheds, rivers, deltas and fish species such as salmon.

Funding for such obvious restoration projects far exceeds global funding for basic conservation. Because of that, some say future restoration will be a mammoth industry one day, vital to the planet’s well-being.

Already, ecological restoration is a major part of a “huge, almost entirely hidden” economic sector in which more than $1 trillion is being poured into restoration, much of which benefits the environment, says Storm Cunningham, an eco-restoration advocate in Alexandria.

Why hidden? Accounting for new construction is detailed and well-defined, while infrastructure restoration that helps ecosystems, such as upgraded sewer systems, are rarely accounted as ecosystem restoration. Thus little data are available, he says.

“The majority of economic activity is restorative, but nobody acknowledges it because our systems are still in old-frontier mode,” Mr. Cunningham says. “We’ve come to assume that economic growth is synonymous with conquering new lands and extracting virgin resources.”

In his 2002 book on the subject, Mr. Cunningham’s trillion-dollar estimate includes billions spent on municipal sewer infrastructure, brownfields redevelopment (restoration of industrial or commercial property that may have suffered environmental contamination), and environmental and ecosystems remediation.

One sign that this integrated vision of eco-remediation is catching on can be found at Clemson University in South Carolina. Its newly formed Restoration Institute announced plans last fall to pull together professors of architecture, urban planning and the sciences in an effort to graduate students who are able to meet a new generation of complex challenges.

“We live for the first time in an urban world, so whenever you go to build something new, you’re really having to restore something,” says Janice Schach, director of the new institute. “If it’s not historical buildings being restored, then it’s infrastructure like sewers and ecological systems like rivers and watersheds.”

Others, such as the Environmental Business Journal (EBJ), an environment-industry trade publication, see a positive but more subdued picture. Overall, the environmental services industry generated $230 billion in revenues in the United States and $580 billion worldwide in 2003. That included spending on water systems, garbage disposal, air-pollution control and other services.

However, EBJ counts only annual revenues — not multiyear appropriations. Within the global picture, remediation efforts such as pollution-site cleanups accounted for a far smaller $6.3 billion in 2003. Still smaller is the “natural resources management” segment within which Everglades and Chesapeake Bay cleanups fall, where revenues were about $1.2 billion last year, EBJ says.

“We are seeing healthy growth of about 10 percent a year in natural-resources management,” says Grant Ferrier, editor of EBJ. “It’s the fastest-growing segment, and there’s going to be more demand going forward.”

Tetra Tech, one of the largest environmental remediation companies in the United States, is capitalizing on that demand. It recently finished a seven-year program aimed at developing sustainable fisheries management in more than 100 coastal villages in the Philippines. Result: a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in fish density.

“We see restoring ecosystems as a tremendous growth area,” says Mark Johnson, a senior vice president for the company in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re doing a lot of work to restore fisheries and institute coastal management overseas, a lot for the World Bank.”

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