Avoiding impact avoidance doesn’t help wetlands

Posted on September 24, 2012

Environmental regulations and policies commonly enshrine three priorities for the protection of wetlands: first, avoid impacts; second, minimize unavoidable impacts; and third, compensate for impacts by restoring, enhancing or creating wetlands.  However, there’s been a widespread tendency to bypass the first priority – to avoid wetland impacts – and to rely instead on the principle of compensation.  Unfortunately, many studies have shown that the compensation approach has often led to declines in the number, area and functions of wetlands.  Why is impact avoidance neglected in the permitting process?  A web-based search of wetland management literature published in North America between 1989 and 2010, coupled with interviews of 33 key informants (regulators, scientists, consultants and representatives of government and industry) revealed five main reasons.  First, there’s been a lack of agreement as to what impact avoidance means, and  deciding whether avoidance is practicable has been hampered by the fact that the concept of practicability has been ill-defined.  Second, wetlands have been steadily lost because wetlands in need of protection haven’t been identified prior to development proposals.  Third, while the immediate wealth to be generated by development has attracted attention, the substantial economic value of wetlands in the form of ecosystem goods and services has been considered only rarely.  A fourth reason for recourse to wetland compensation is techno-arrogance, in the form of a simplistic belief that constructed wetlands can fully mimic complex natural systems and a lack of recognition that constructed wetlands may take decades to mature and stabilise, with lower ecological values in the interim.  A trend toward wetland banking and off-site compensation has resulted in changes in the distribution, type, size, quality, and connectivity of wetlands.  And fifth, the requirements for wetland compensation are often poorly enforced, with only weak penalties for non-compliance.  Recommended actions to increase the focus on impact avoidance include watershed-based planning to prioritize the conservation of high value wetlands; more comprehensive ecological and social valuation of wetlands; and long-term citizen-based monitoring schemes to encourage stewardship and assess the effectiveness of compensation.

Reference:  Clare, S., Krogman, N., Foote, L. & Lemphers, N.  2011.  Where is the avoidance in the implementation of wetland law and policy?  Wetlands Ecology & Management 19, 165–182.  http://www.cbd.int/financial/doc/ifrik-innovative-financial-mechanisms-02-2011-en.pdf