Lave quoted on stream mitigation banking
Not every market-driven conservation project is a winner, though. Take stream mitigation banking, in which restoration companies earn credits by repairing degraded streams, then sell those credits to anyone — logging companies, hotel builders, transportation departments — who expects to damage nearby habitat. The idea is that the free market will improve restoration’s efficiency. But according to Indiana University geographer Rebecca Lave, private enterprise and rivers don’t always mix. “For the market in stream credits to work, there has to be a defined commodity,” Lave told me. But unlike gold or wheat, streams are inherently dynamic — they shift channels, rearrange boulders, build islands and wash them away. That protean nature frustrates evaluation. “If a stream is changing, regulators have no way to certify whether it’s OK or not,” she said.
The result is that stream mitigation projects tend to promote stable channels — good news if you’re a government accreditor trying to create a salable unit, not so good if you hope to restore the life of a river. What’s best for the market isn’t what’s best for the watershed. “We don’t have happier, healthier streams because we have markets for them,” Lave said. “Mitigation banking has allowed the status quo to continue.”