What’s Interior Secretary Zinke’s beef with “compensatory mitigation?”

This free-market solution to habitat destruction is fundamentally American

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke / Bureau of Land Management

“Compensatory mitigation.” These two words have received more attention from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke than anyone could have imagined when President Trump tapped him to oversee America’s public lands.

For some unknown and inexplicable reason, Secretary Zinke is passionately opposed to the simple concept. He told the Western Governors’ Association meeting this week:

“Some people would call [compensatory mitigation] extortion. I call it un-American.”

And that’s not the first-time Secretary Zinke has set his sights on this wonky policy — he’s attacked it in a Senate hearing and in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he claimed compensatory mitigation forces companies to buy off nonprofit organizations:

For those of us not immersed in the minutiae of land restoration policy, compensatory mitigation is really just two big words to describe programs that allow private developers — oil and gas drillers, miners, or construction companies — to offset the known impacts of their development activities. The most well-known (but not only) form is wetland banking, where a developer mitigates the destruction of wetlands by funding restoration and protection of wetlands elsewhere.

Before, during and after compensatory mitigation project, US Army Corps of Engineers

Compensatory mitigation has its roots in a long-standing principle held by both Republicans and Democrats: if a company damages the natural environment — for example, harms the healthy functioning of wetlands or fragments wildlife habitat — it is responsible for offsetting those impacts. Put differently, drilling, road building, shopping mall construction, mining, and other forms of development have negative impacts for the environment and companies are expected (and often legally required) to clean-up after themselves. Compensatory mitigation is often one of the most efficient ways for companies to accomplish the clean-up.

There is nothing new or partisan about compensatory mitigation. In fact, it’s precisely the type of free-market solution to conservation and environmental protections that Republicans have always supported. Rather, attacks against compensatory mitigation have historically come from the left — some folks believe it gives developers an easy out, allowing for environmental destruction to occur rather than avoiding it.

And there’s a long history of Republican presidents — in addition to private industry, like oil drillers — promoting compensatory mitigation policies. For example, George W. Bush issued a National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan committing to no net loss of wetlands. The action plan was eventually incorporated into a Final Compensatory Mitigation Rule. In Wyoming, oil and gas drillers have been actively participating in the establishment of a compensatory mitigation program to offset unavoidable impacts to sage grouse habitat.

So what is the secretary’s beef?

Secretary Zinke’s opposition might be another example of President Trump and his administration going to extreme lengths to undermine the legacy of his predecessor, in spite of the efficacy of any single policy.

Wildlands Mitigation Bank, Placer County, California

Building upon the work of the George W. Bush administration, President Obama issued a Presidential Memo in 2015, Mitigating Impacts on Natural Resources from Development and Encouraging Private Investment. President Obama’s memo called for U.S. agencies to adopt “mitigation policies [which] establish a net benefit goal or, at a minimum, a no net loss goal for natural resources.” President Trump and Secretary Zinke have taken steps to do away with this policy, signing an Executive Order and Secretarial Order earlier this year to reexamine mitigation policies within the Interior Department and across the U.S. government.

Oddly, however, the goal of “net benefit” or “no net loss” from development projects sounds a whole lot like Secretary Zinke’s contention in a recent op-ed that:

“We can responsibly develop our energy resources and return the land to equal or better quality than it was before extraction.”

The secretary is not just acknowledging that companies have a responsibility to restore land they impact, but that the result should either be a net benefit or no net loss of habitat.

Compensatory wetlands mitigation in Superior, Wisconsin

Restoration and rehabilitation after development does not happen magically. Companies can engage in rehabilitation on site, restoring that land, water, and habitat they may have damaged during development. But often, it is more simple, more cost effective, and more efficient to participate in compensatory mitigation — pay to improve natural resources elsewhere. Compensatory mitigation is an important tool for developers to “return the land to equal or better quality.”

There have been no shortage of head-scratchers since Secretary Zinke took the reins at the Interior Department. He’s proposed slashing the National Park Service budget after promising to invest in America’s parks; he’s billed himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican while acting to undermine President Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, and he’s promised to respect the sovereignty of tribal nation’s while simultaneously disparaging tribal priorities. With his compensatory mitigation obsession, we can add another one to the list.