How about Habitat Exchanges for the Cow Knob Salamander?

If ranchers, mineral companies and environmentalists can work together to protect the greater sage grouse, can't Virginians work together to protect the Cow Knob salamander?
If ranchers, mineral companies and environmentalists can work together to protect the greater sage grouse, can’t Virginians work together to protect the Cow Knob salamander?

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been cogitating a lot recently over the difficulty of building major infrastructure projects in Virginia that are vital to the economy yet intrude upon landowner rights and the environment. One problem, which I dubbed the “rule of firsties,” is the spreading conviction that existing landowners (the ones who got there first) have a right to undeveloped view sheds comprised of other peoples’ property. Another problem is the near impossibility of building a highway, power line or pipeline that doesn’t impinge upon some historical home, burial plot, neolithic Indian settlement or some Freebish Loutwort of a rare species. Most recently I highlighted the ruckus over the Cow Knob salamander whose habitat lies in the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

It’s more difficult building Big Infrastructure today than it was a century ago because we value things that we didn’t back then and want to protect them. We don’t like bulldozing our history and cultural heritage. We don’t like driving endangered species into extinction. We don’t like steamrolling landowners who just want to be left alone. So, what’s to be done?

There are no easy answers, just different trade-offs. But some trade-offs arguably are less painful than others. When I wrote about the Cow Knob salamander yesterday, I suggested that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might somehow mitigate or offset the effect of its destruction to the salamander’s habitat. Frankly, I had no clear idea how that might be done, although I was thinking vaguely that we could create a mechanism like wetlands banks, in which a developer or builder offsets the destruction of wetlands by creating new wetlands somewhere else.

Could we do something similar for Cow Knob salamanders? Well perhaps we can. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has taken the lead in prairie and Rocky Mountain states to create “habitat exchanges” that are doing for the greater sage grouse, the lesser prairie chicken and the mule deer what I kinda, sorta had in mind for the salamander.

Writes Fred Krupp, president of the EDF in the Wall Street Journal today:

Think of it as an Airbnb for wildlife. Just as the online company Airbnb allows homeowners to get paid for opening a spare bedroom to travelers, habitat exchanges allow landowners to get paid for providing quality habitat for vulnerable wildlife. The revenue is supplied by infrastructure, energy and other developers, which need to mitigate the environmental impact of their projects. But concerned individuals, nongovernmental organizations or corporations can also share in the cost, donating funds to an exchange. …

Though it would be ideal to set aside enough habitat to ensure the survival of the nation’s critters, practically speaking we can’t. The best alternative is to share resources so everyone wins.

I don’t know what kind of legal framework might be needed for Virginians to start creating habitat exchanges, but someone ought to take a look. We likely won’t devise a solution in time to address concerns raised by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or the Mountain Valley Pipeline, but you can rest assured that other Big Infrastructure projects will be proposed in the future and that the same kinds of issues will be raised. We can either stagger from one zero-sum-game slug-fest to another, or we can devise options like habitat exchanges to make the inevitable trade-offs less painful. The choice is ours.

Read more about habitat exchanges here.

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12 responses to “How about Habitat Exchanges for the Cow Knob Salamander?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    not all wetlands are created equal though.. and even harder with land set aside as “habitat” but I agree with the concept and Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management areas can be “created”.. and a trust fund established for their operation and maintenance..

    this is one more reason why existing rights-of-ways should be used before we go cutting new corridors much less granting multiple companies multiple new rights-of-ways – for profit-making ventures rather than true – public need facilities.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The problem raised here is eternal:

    How good intentions far to0 often drive regulation that often functions well and does much public good, until those regulations are hijacked and then twisted into monsters by those with extreme ideologies and hidden agendas that end up using those very same regulations to do great harm.

    A prime example of this plague on our society is the story of how the Federal Government’s Historic Preservation Act (including Tax Credits) of the 1970s was hijacked and twisted into a monster now has helped to drive the Washington DC metropolitan subway system into Bankruptcy.

    The remarkable thing is that most of this damage has been done after that very same Historic Preservation act brought so much benefit to Washington DC. Indeed it saved much of the historic fabric of the “old City” from its almost certain destruction absent that act.

    And that Historic Preservation act often saved those old buildings and historic neighborhoods in wonderfully creative ways. It often brought them back to life in vibrant new uses that fueled modern productive growth and ignited new energy into otherwise dead or dying neighborhoods.

    And it did all of this good in lieu of the most likely alternative absent the Act. Instead of destroying those buildings and neighborhoods like had been done in the 1960s and early 1970s to many DC neighborhoods – tearing them down and rebuilding them into modern sterile neighborhoods with short life spans that spawned many counter productive urban destroying pathologies – this new Act did the reverse until it was hijacked and used to destroy the very neighborhoods it was designed to save.

    This of course is only one example, among countless others. Even good laws and initiatives most always get hijacked to end up doing far more damage than good, or at least far more damage by way of unexpected consequences than its originators and original players ever intended or dreamed of.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Reed – you talk about all the good that was done but not very specific on the harm.

      can you explain a little more in detail how it harmed?

  3. There can be some value in habitat exchanges. However, in the case of a species that is adapted to small habitats with special characteristics that is not always possible. The difficulty is – that as intelligent as we believe ourselves to be, we don’t understand the natural world very well. We have disconnected ourselves from it for centuries and we impose our bias about how it should work rather than understanding how it really does work.

    A cleared right-of-way through a specific habitat can disrupt movement and breeding patterns which can affect the gene pool of a species. If we move a species to a different habitat which we think is similar, but is missing an ingredient that we didn’t know was crucial, then that could be the end of the species.

    Extinctions have occurred in the past when major events changed conditions so greatly that organisms that were perfectly adapted to existing conditions could no longer survive. Usually 70 – 95% of all existing species do not survive these events. Meteors, ocean anoxia, volcanism and other factors caused these events.

    We are at the beginning of the sixth great extinction on earth. This one is caused by human activity. In the blink of an eye in geologic time, humans and the domestic livestock needed to support them have become 98% of the mass of all vertebrate species on the planet. The activities from our industrial era have altered habitats for thousands of species. We have only discovered 30 million of the over 100 million species that we believe to exist on the planet.

    Nature does not have “wastes”. A by-product of one species activity becomes the food for another. We are the only species that does not behave as if it is part of everything else. Nature’s laws have been developed over eons. The natural world has been tested in a wide range of conditions. Nature knows what works and what lasts. As long as we ignore our interconnection with everything else, we are a threat to ourselves and perhaps much else.

    We say that these huge infrastructure projects are essential and all else should get out of the way. That the freedom of people to enjoy their ancestors land or an unblemished view must be taken from them for the “greater good”. Does it really serve us to destroy what sustains us?

    In our hubris, we are blind to our ignorance. What we really have is a design problem. If we were more aware of the natural world, we would observe how it works, and adopt the lessons to sustain our civilization.

    Dominion says they need to build a pipeline to supply the 4300 MW of natural gas fired plants that are going in to service from 2014 -2019. These plants cost billions of dollars and are expected to last 40-60 years. With a far lower investment and much better design, more energy than the output of these units could be saved in ways that would provide more jobs, and more comfort and prosperity for our residents. The natural world is powered by sunlight. Ours should be too. We have been living off our savings account of ancient sunlight in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. But we have squandered our savings. It is time to start living off our income.

    The technologies and methods we developed to respond to our environment have also changed it. We need to rejoin the natural world (in our minds – we never left it physically) and learn the lessons so that we can succeed in the long term.

    I don’t want to belittle alternative solutions such as habitat exchange. But it reflects the thinking that things are in the way of our “progress” so they must move. A thousand years ago, the largest city on the planet was in Missouri (Cahokia). When Europeans came to these shores, rather than learning from what existed, we said “you are in the way of what we want – move”. Millions of people, whose ancestors had inhabited these lands for tens of thousands of years, were told to “move”. Placed in a habitat different than that from which originally sustained them, they died out.

    In the 1600’s, the Shenandoah Valley was a savannah, one of the most productive biomes on earth. This was created by controlled fires and bringing in bison from the Great Plains. European settlers introduced farming techniques that originated in a different place under different conditions and the Valley has not been as productive since.

    Many geologists believe that the Blue Ridge is the oldest mountain range on earth, over a billion years old. It was once part of the central mountain range on Pangea when all of the land mass on earth comprised a single continent. Rather than revere and protect this ancient mountain, we use it as a substrate for our progress. Its ancient karst geology will be blasted to create the pipeline trench. This will disrupt the precious groundwater reservoirs which provide freshwater to millions in Virginia and surrounding states.

    Einstein reminded us “that we cannot use the same level of thinking to solve a problem that we used to create it”. We must expand our vision, remember our interrelatedness with all things, and design as nature has successfully done for billions of years.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    some thoughtful thoughts …. not sure I disagree in large or small but only point out that if you look around your house – out of the thousands of items – probably very few came from the land it sits on – most all of it came via “corridors” and “rights-of-ways”.

    you have light and heat and food that you got by “clearing” land so it could get to you.


  5. Not true historically, but true in the recent past (100-200 years). But even the modern choices resulted from poor design decisions. For example, think of the expansion of our cities and suburbia. Ideal land use planning would put the houses on the sides of ridges to use the shade, and the ability of the earth to temper heating and cooling needs. The farmland would remain in the flat fertile bottom land. Within easy access to the community it feeds. No reason to cut giant swaths across the countryside to bring in food from California. Trees cut down to make room for the houses would have built the houses, not be shipped overseas.

    We built huge ports, pipelines and highways to haul the oil that fueled the carnage. In the 1930’s, we had a natural local source of hydrocarbons (hemp) that could have fueled our age of plastics and synthetic fibers (it was the early feedstock to make rayon). Henry Ford even built a car from it (much stronger and lighter than steel) that could be fueled by it as well. Many farmers and rural towns would have had a welcome economic boost in the 30’s had this crop remained available.

    However, the DuPont’s had stolen patents from the Germans during World War I and wanted to deal with just a few suppliers to expand their fortune. William Randolph Hearst owned hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land and did not want the higher quality paper made from hemp to be a competitor. Hearst’s process required high levels of chlorine and acid which turned his newspaper pages yellow (hence “yellow journalism”). Together Hearst, DuPont, and the richest man in the world at the time (Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon) contrived to make this valuable farm crop ( a magazine cover had just named it the new billion dollar crop) an illegal drug. DuPont could deal with a few oil barons rather than thousands of Kentucky farmers.

    I know that I am wandering far afield here, but my point is that paradigms create certain outcomes. For centuries, our prevailing mindset was that the world (including humans) was like a giant machine. Everything existed to feed the machine (including humans). We carved up the tall grass prairies with our moldboard plows and within a little more than a century, destroyed 70-80% of the more than ten feet of topsoil that had taken millennia to accumulate.

    Our machine mindset stressed our planet and ourselves. Perhaps it is time for a different outlook; a worldview which sees a nested set of living organisms, including humans and our social organizations. We can take a different path and create a world that nurtures us rather than stresses us. And we can use our creative gifts and tool making ability to shape a world that sustains us and other life for generations to come. The time has come to question whether it continues to serve us to do things the same way as we have always done them.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    so we’ve developed earth wrong?

    all cities are, by definition, design disasters?

    sorry – but the only places on earth that don’t have highways, ports, pipelines and powerlines are 3rd world.


  7. Larry,
    I don’t believe you understood what I wrote. I did not suggest that we needed no roads, only fewer of them. If our food and many of our goods move only a few miles instead of a few thousand, we don’t need as many. Or as much energy to move things. That’s OK, you are not alone. Most people cannot imagine alternatives to the way we are doing things.

    Are our most modern cities design disasters? Yes. Turn the energy coming from the outside off for three days and see what happens. Have a global computer virus or power outage disrupt the internet and see what happens when the trucks cannot be dispatched. In three days all of the grocery stores will be out of food. Any other natural system that was designed to be so brittle would be out of business.

    We have made it this far only because we dug up buried treasure and lived off that. We took coal, oil, natural gas, metal ores, underground water supplies, soil, and many other treasures that required thousands, millions, or even billions of years to produce – and used them in a few hundred years.

    If we consider this our “nursing period”, when were sustained by our mother, that’s fine. Now it is time to grow up and live like mature adults, not spoiled children.

    You say that the absence of pipelines, etc. would make us like the third world. I am suggesting that being able to sustain ourselves abundantly without pipelines would make us more advanced not less. When you think about it, they are very crude solutions. How have the forests, prairies and savannas survived for millions of years without pipelines? We need to shift our designs to methods that endure.

    Take rare earth elements as an example. They are called rare for a reason. Forget for a moment that we are pillaging the third world nations and fomenting civil wars in order to extract these elements. But because they are so rare and require so much energy to extract and refine, they must be carefully husbanded.

    Without them we have no cell phones, no laptops, no high-tech world. Rather than our traditional “use it and throw it away” model, we must move to the example of the natural world which constantly cycles nutrients. In our modern production processes these would be called “technical” nutrients. Products would be designed not only for the first use, but also for what happens next. How does the product get broken down with the least amount of energy and effort, so that the technical nutrients can move into a new product. This is called Cradle to Cradle design. It will help move us to an enduring future. Our industrial agriculture uses 10 units of energy to make 1 unit of food energy. How long can that last? Continuing on the wasteful, “rip it up” and “throw it away” path can in the long term have only one end – a dead end.

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This Saturday’s edition of WSJ reported that the 100% Silver Bowl gifts traditionally give to Japanese citizens turning 100 is getting expensive.

    The tradition started in 1963, a time when 153 people 100 years or older lived in all of Japan

    Today roughly 30,000 Japanese people turn 100 years old each year alone.

    And, of course, the earth grows far more food than the earth’s 7.4 billion people can eat. Food production is outstripping population growth, and has been for decades. The problem of hunger is one of politics, dysfunctional local government and poor distribution – poor people need more roads, more trains, more planes, more ships and massively more infrastructure, including more power plants and grids to take electric power to all 7.4 billion people living today on this earth.

    The world also needs more people. The tremendous growth of food, wealth, and health driven by wondrous medicines, and technologies now grows exponentially as the world’s population grows. Why?

    The earth’s most precious resource is people.

    We need far more young people, as many as our families can produce.

    We on earth desperately need all of their talents, brains, drive, independence of thought and action, as much of all of it as we can get, because the benefits they bring are exponential. Particularly so under capitalist systems governed by the rule of law, otherwise known as the British peoples’ great gift to the world.

    This greatest gift from the Emerald Isles is the gift that keeps on giving, feeding the health and wealth of the world’s 7.4 Billion people and doing it in so many variant and every changing and improving ways, for the benefit of all mankind.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    geeze.. we can’t take care of the folks we have now… what makes you think we should have more when we already fail to provide enough food, education, health care?

    the ironic thing about how many people are 100 is the fact that Japan has Universal Health Care and everyone in Japan gets health care… while in this country we argue about it… and some claim the free market should provide everyone with health care or if it can’t ..too bad…

  10. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Recall my comment above starting with:

    “How good intentions far to0 often drive regulation that often functions well and does much public good, until those regulations are hijacked and then twisted into monsters by those with extreme ideologies and hidden agendas that end up using those very same regulations to do great harm.

    A prime example of this plague on our society is the story of how the Federal Government’s Historic Preservation Act (including Tax Credits) of the 1970s was hijacked and twisted into a monster now has helped to drive the Washington DC metropolitan subway system into Bankruptcy.”

    Here are two example among many, but first some background:

    Properly organized and nurtured, urban density creates massive wealth.

    The more density typically the better. Hence steel reinforced and elevator serviced high rises from 4 stories up put peoples wealth, culture, and health on steroids, building public benefits beyond peoples wildest imagination. This is called building civilization.

    Take Ballston – Rosslyn Corridor, Arlington’s new downtown, as a recent example close by.

    One element of its success was its historic preservation, mixing the fabric of old buildings with new uses into new development, and thus creating out of thin air otherwise hidden or destroyed mutual benefits.

    Another key element of success of Arlington’s new downtown was its enormous new growth of carefully mixed densities along it brand new subway line that runs the length of the “Corridor’s very long Main Street.

    This worked like Ying & Yang. This worked cumulative miracles, again seeming to create astounding benefits out of thin air. The dynamic is multifaceted, very complex. But at base as concerns the subway:

    The subway in the corridor feeds the density downtown and all over the region, and the density in the Corridor feeds the subway across the region and in its own downtown in endlessly evolving ways.

    The resultant benefits of this Arlington Ying Yang feeds everyone in the entire DC region. Indeed, the variety, quality, volume, longevity, and cumulative growth of those spun off benefits stagger the imagination.

    For just one benefit, imagine building cumulative density several times over in your linear downtown without increasing auto – traffic while at the same time drastically increasing convenience, via whole new grids of mobility.

    Here is the most incredible part. Very few people, including many with official responsibility for the growth and health of the Washington DC region, of many of whom have the responsibility and express obligation to know better, and conduct themselves in light of what they should know, either refuse to act or make no apparent the effort to learn why the Corridor succeeds and to apply those lessons elsewhere within the very same DC region, even to nearby places that alread have the means to easily achieve same benefits that the Ballston-Rossyln Corridor has now been spinning off for more than two decades.

    Next we’ll talk more about that failure.

  11. I wouldn’t say it is more difficult. I would say it has changed. Yes there is more of a ruckus over rare fauna. However, there is now a complete disregard for personal property rights. Large, well connected, and greedy corporations are placed above the laws to allow them to make even more money. The developers of the pipeline got legislation allowing unlimited trespass on others property, are allowed the use of governmental power such as eminate domain to steal the property w/o any of the protections government agencies are subject to, and are then granted the right to pick the court most favorable to the corporation. This is all done when there is ‘ZERO’ domestic need for said pipeline. The pipeline’s only purpose is to supply the company’s export facility with natural gas to export for 3x the price. So the pipeline will cause unmeasurable environmental impact, seize thousands of acers of privet property, and drive up domestic energy prices, so greedy Dominion Power cane pay their corrupt CEO even more.

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