by Chase Puentes, Masters of Marine Affairs Candidate 2022, University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs
I was slated to begin graduate school at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs in September, but as the long summer began, I felt a strong desire to contribute to climate solutions before then. I just couldn’t wait that long to participate in meaningful environmental work!
Thankfully, The Nature Conservancy posted an internship opportunity focused on researching the costs and co-benefits of different Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) as they pertain to Washington State, and I was lucky enough to secure a spot on the team looking at three fascinating watershed-related pathways.
The idea behind Riparian Restoration, put simply, is to replant trees along streams and rivers. This replanting activity not only offers financial incentives to eligible landowners through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), but also provides myriad benefits to the watershed:
reducing streamside erosion
regulating water flow rates and sediment deposition
providing important habitat connectivity for birds and small mammals
ensuring passable streambed conditions for salmon and other fish
improving local air quality and temperature regulation
filtering pollution and nutrient runoff
While it doesn’t provide as high a carbon mitigation potential as Avoided Conversion, Riparian Reforestation represents an important natural climate solution for several reasons. Noted above, its co-benefits are numerous for both water and air quality. Riparian replanting is also unique among natural climate pathways in that its benefits are generally agreed upon and substantiated by scientific literature from the past 50 years. It is also one of the cheapest and most functionally straightforward restoration activities. And finally, because of the CREP, Riparian Reforestation already has a framework for implementation in Washington.
However, while planting trees along riverbanks may sound like an inoffensive activity, my research revealed that Riparian Reforestation is actually a rather fraught NCS pathway. Most notably, many farmers in Washington have expressed concerns surrounding the CREP, and how the program could impact their livelihoods. Additionally, riparian reforestation involves complex relationships with varying perspectives and needs. Western scientists often push for streamside revegetation in order to restore the environment to a more “natural” state; Indigenous scientists and activists frequently aim to improve the habitat of salmon, a critical cultural species inherent to their treaty rights. While the overall goals of the two groups of scientists differ, both call for farmers to participate in the CREP by setting aside portions of their land.
But many of these farmers are still working the same land that their great-great grandfathers did, and hold strong place-based identities. To them, no amount of financial compensation is worth sacrificing portions of their land to tree buffers if they believe it will cost them the ability to continue farming on their property, particularly if they are small scale farmers with little arable land to begin with. Thus, there often exists mistrust between farmers, who want to maintain their heritage, and scientific communities, who prioritize soil and water benefits provided by riparian reforestation.
So, several important questions now remain.
What is the optimal width for tree buffer strips to provide sufficient ecological benefits but not overly burden farmers?
How can we ensure that the benefits of Riparian Restoration are distributed equitably in a way that upholds tribal rights?
What can be done to foster trust between Indigenous groups, Western scientists, and rural communities, and how can farmers be enticed to participate in the CREP outside of monetary payments?
Where will these restoration projects occur and how do we ensure that they provide equitable benefits to local communities?
It is the humble opinion of this intern that top-down policy concerning the CREP will only further emphasize the divides between stakeholders. Future policies may find a greater degree of success through concerted efforts to listen, and by allowing communities to act as planning partners and co-managers in NCS activities.
Researching these topics over the course of a few months has opened my eyes to the depth and complexities of implementing climate solutions. Although I’ve only scratched the surface of these issues, I feel that participating in this internship has significantly widened the scope of my future research interests to include qualitative work, non-urban and non-Western perspectives, and holistic ecosystem approaches. I’m certain that my graduate experience wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t partnered with TNC on this project!
Limitations of wetland restoration for NCS
Studies show that people highly value wetlands for aesthetics, recreation, ecological value, and mental well-being, and they are largely in favor of restoration projects. But such projects can be costly and often benefit already affluent communities. Additionally, an estimated 72% of historic wetland area along the Washington coast has been destroyed, so there is some evidence which suggests that restoring the remaining damaged wetlands will not contribute significantly to greenhouse gas mitigation. So, while tidal wetland restoration likely does not make financial sense only in the context of carbon sequestration, it has the potential to provide other consequential benefits to society and the environment that warrant further research and future project planning.
Avoided forest conversion and “leakage”
Similarly, literature on the Avoided Conversion pathway underscores a considerable side effect. While setting aside forested land to preserve it from development would act as a means to protect wildlife corridors, improve air and water quality, and stabilize local temperatures, Avoided Conversion is exceedingly vulnerable to a phenomenon called ‘leakage’, whereby the intended development activity only moves to another area where it isn’t as impeded. Research on Avoided Conversion in the US is very limited at this time, but some work suggests that development restricting horizontal urban and suburban expansion in Western Washington would prevent the loss of highly productive forest lands. Ultimately, leakage is not currently well understood and represents an obstacle to successful implementation of Avoided Conversion projects and policies. But, Avoided Conversion has a large carbon mitigation potential, and if studied in depth, may help to protect some of the most productive forests remaining in the country.