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DCRP faculty member Todd BenDor

The Trump administration is reportedly considering a new $1 trillion infrastructure plan — and senior lawmakers may be on board. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell have all said they’re open to such a bill.  This massive infrastructure push wouldn’t merely put Americans back to work. If implemented correctly, it could also clean up the environment.

That may sound counterintuitive. How could paving over swamps to construct a new highway, or felling thousands of trees to lay an energy pipeline, possibly help the environment? The answer lies in the little-known “ecological restoration” industry. Many Americans have never heard of this sector, but it’s massive. My colleagues and I conducted research that found it pumps $25 billion into the economy each year and directly employs more than 126,000 people — more than the logging, steel, or coal industries. It’s the key to improving both the environment and the economy.

First, some background. Decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect our rivers, streams, and other aquatic resources from unchecked development. Infrastructure projects, especially large-scale projects like highways or utility lines, often damage streams and wetlands. Clean Water Act regulations don’t necessarily prohibit these negative impacts, but they do require that the resulting damage is canceled out through restoration of a nearby wetland or stream ecosystem. Construction teams typically outsource this work to firms that specialize in ecological restoration. These companies transform spaces — such as a disappearing marsh on Louisiana’s coastline or an overgrown swamp in Florida — into thriving and resilient ecosystems.  This outsourcing and specialization helps the environment, and also accelerates construction timelines. Army Corps’ data found that projects receive permits twice as fast when the developers buy wetland or stream offsets from ecological restoration companies.

Ecological restoration companies also harness the power of nature to help communities withstand natural disasters. One common restoration technique involves planting native vegetation along shorelines to prevent erosion and flooding. Another calls for the construction of “wet ponds” near highways and other infrastructure projects — these ponds collect and filter runoff water before it pollutes streams and rivers. Such natural infrastructure projects ultimately save communities, and our emergency management programs, billions of dollars by reducing the severity of floods and other natural disasters.

Ecological restoration is particularly important during our current public health crisis, as several states ramp up public works projects and Congress weighs further infrastructure investments. Pursuing environmentally responsible development helps ensure we leave a cleaner planet to our kids and grandkids — and it also creates much-needed jobs, especially in struggling rural regions. That’s partly why several trade groups recently urged Congress to move forward with an infrastructure bill, and why Senator Ron Wyden proposed $7 billion in funding for conservation jobs.

For instance, stream restoration projects in the Ohio Valley create rewarding new opportunities for former coal miners to transition to an industry that improves, rather than harms, the environment. Restoration companies also often partner with America’s farmers on water quality projects, providing them with additional revenue that can prove crucial — particularly given the current financial crisis.

It’s time for Congress to put Americans back to work, preserve our wild places, and reduce costly regulatory delays — by supporting ecological restoration in upcoming infrastructure packages.


Dr. Todd BenDor is a professor of city and regional planning and the director of the Odum Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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