April 1, 2005
What's Wrong with "No Net Loss"?
"No Net Loss" sounds innocuous, but it may be a dangerous loophole.
First, it is not well defined either by legal precedent, or by tight language in the proposed County ordinance. Thus, there is the potential that it will in practice turn out to be an ineffectual mitigation for forest destruction.
As well as we do understand it, the meaning of the phrase in the proposed ordinance is that a landowner who has two thousand badly over-harvested acres of forests will be able to convert one thousand of those acres to vineyards, in exchange for the promise to let the other thousand acres recover. (The extent and permanence of the protection on the other thousand acres is one of the key uncertainties.) Our point is that all over-harvested forests should be allowed to recover; by offering not to destroy one thousand of the acres, the landowner isn't offering anything more than he ought to be doing anyway. It is misleading to describe such an arrangement as "No Net Loss".
"No net loss" and the associated concept of "mitigation banking" have been
used for many years at the federal and state levels. In addition to the
USA, Canada and Great Britain (& probably other countries as well) have used the concepts.
President George Bush (the First) announced a "no net loss" policy for
wetlands in 1989. As a philosophical goal, "no net loss" sets a minimum
standard -- protecting the last few percent of a severely depleted resource
is obviously not an aggressive environmental policy. A study prepared by
the National Academy of Sciences in 2001 reported that even the minimal goal
of "no net loss" was not being achieved for wetlands.
One of the main problems is how to measure "loss." It's easy to measure
acreage, so that's what they do, but the real key is ecologic function.
Does one acre of newly created wetland (forest) compensate for the loss of
an acre of mature wetland (forest) with complex hydrologic and ecologic
linkages? Advocates of the policy argue that over a sufficiently long time
scale the distinction between "newly created" and "mature" becomes moot.
Moderate environmentalists argue for higher mitigation ratios (several new
acres to mitigate the loss of each existing acre) to compensate for the loss
Another problem with "no net loss" is the all too common inadequacy of
long-term monitoring and enforcement. If it takes, say, 50 years to create
a healthy wetland (forest), then clearly monitoring must continue for 50
years. Developments must have a long-term monitoring plan by an independent
third party (land conservancy?) and be bonded in case the mitigation bank
fails to produce the required ecological functions over time.