By Todd Gartner
Fire-maintained longleaf pine once occupied 90 million acres in the Southeast. Today, roughly three million acres remain. Land conversion and lack of fire on the landscape have decreased habitat for a variety of species dependent upon an open canopy and diverse ground cover. Consequently, many species have experienced population decline, including the gopher tortoise. The gopher tortoise is federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the western portion of its range, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the eastern population. With more than 80 percent of land in private ownership in the Southeast, the greatest potential for conservation, restoration, and management of pine habitat for declining species lies in the hands of family woodland owners.
To address these issues, I am helping the American Forest Foundation develop a market-based habitat credit trading system in portions of Georgia and Alabama. The incentive-based framework will complement other efforts in the region to keep the eastern population of the gopher tortoise off the Endangered Species list.
Under the program, interested family woodland owners become eligible for habitat management assistance and conservation credit payments through a reverse auction process; where the buyer and seller switch roles. Landowners selected to participate will be issued credits for verifiable gopher tortoise habitat and/or agreed upon management activities. These credits can then be voluntarily purchased by federal agencies, state, or county governments, or private companies to offset impacts on gopher tortoise habitat. These banked credits may also assist the credit holders in meeting their regulatory obligations should the eastern population of the gopher tortoise become federally listed in the future.
The “currency” involved in the habit trading system is habitat credits. A credit is a unit of trade that places monetary value on habitat preservation or restoration. Credits are sold to offset impacts to species and/or species’ habitats and will be quantified in acres. The acreage will be weighted based on ecological factors, priority locations, and other variables.
The relationship between credits and debits reflects the value of the compensatory habitat provided to the habitat impacted and is expressed as a mitigation or trading ratio. For example, a 2:1 trading ratio could represent 200 acres of restored habitat for every 100 acres of negatively impacted land.
This innovative payment for ecosystem services approach aims to develop a voluntary precompliance market for a non-listed species and will generate new income streams for private landowners so their lands remain as well-managed forests. A holistic habitat focus will address the primary causes for gopher tortoise population decline while simultaneously addressing the suite of other species that utilize the longleaf ecosystem. This approach is different from traditional species conservation banking, which often fails to address the true driver of species imperilment— habitat loss.
A proactive approach, focusing on mitigation before listing occurs, provides numerous benefits and increases the likelihood of success. Precompliance credits are expected to be dramatically less expensive than compliance credits, hopefully leading to increased acres conserved. Initial credit transactions are anticipated to occur this year—stay tuned.