2010 National Planning Conference: Bettman Symposium

A Bull Market for Wetlands

By David Morley, AICP
Planning Advisory Service Coordinator

The annual Bettman Symposium kicked off with a challenge to planners and land use lawyers to create the policies and laws that would create a market for carbon sequestration in wetlands. In her introduction, Lora Lucero, AICP, editor of APA's Planning & Environmental Law, wondered if Alfred Bettman would agree that climate change is the most pressing challenge we face in 2010.

Picking up on Lucero's cue, John R. Nolon, from the Pace University School of Law, used his presentation to make it clear that climate change is real and that planners are well positioned to advocate specific policy and regulatory interventions to mitigate the effects of that change.

As Nolon put it, business as usual in the built environment guarantees that we will be "cooked." Much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributing to climate change is a result of transportation and land use choices. In Nolon's view, compact urban development is key to sustainability.

Some communities are already responding to climate change by encouraging or requiring compact, mixed-use development, energy efficient buildings, high energy technology districts, and most germane to the night's symposium, preservation of wetlands for the purpose of carbon sequestration.

Nolon continued by pointing out that the demand for urban living is increasing in response to changing demographics. Of the projected 100,000 million new U.S. residents in 2050, 60 percent will want to live in compact development environments. And as Nolon points out, satisfying this demand for compact development can save 1.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

In Nolon's view, Building more compactly means that more natural areas will be available for preservation. He explained that currently, most wetlands in the U.S. have never been disturbed and that these wetlands sequester over 15 percent of carbon in the U.S.

Local governments are already using a number of open space preservation tools that all have the added benefit of preserving the sequestering environment. Nolon urged local planners to help their communities prepare comprehensive plans that outline a "greenprint" for growth and change. "Our profession is going to be tested to advise our clients how to put things in the right places...Our challenge is to work toward sustainable communities."

Fred P. Bosselman, FAICP, from the Illinois Institute of Technology, began his presentation with the statement that local governments are sentries for protecting wetlands. He sees a major opportunity in the recent Environmental Independence and Security Act of 2007. This act requires substantial increases in biofuel use.

Because of this requirement, Bosselman sees a future in farming wetlands. Although federal wetlands law states there should be no net loss of wetlands, until now, this requirement has done little to protect the function of wetlands.

In Bosselman's view, using wetlands to grow "advanced biofuels" has at least two distinct advantages over the current approach to wetlands management. First, using wetlands for biofuels means that less valuable food farmland will be turned over to biofuel production. Second, increasing the vegetation in wetlands increases the amount of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. We are gaining wetlands as people build them for sewage treatment.

Bosselman identifies algae as the top potential new biofuel in the U.S. The Department of Energy has been making grants for algae biofuels, and venture capital is flowing into this research. Meanwhile, bioengineers are working to develop new species of algae with better fuel potential.

What should planners do, asks Bosselman? Planners must stay abreast of biofuel research. We have a duty to acknowledge that advanced biofuels are in the public interest, but also study the possible impacts of biofuels. Perhaps most importantly, planners must try to devise criteria for evaluating the effects of specific biofuel projects.

Bosselman's advice for lawyers is to look at state wetland laws and local wetland ordinances to determine the extent of these regulations' jurisdiction over biofuel projects. Lawyers can help local communities take control of carbon sequestration in wetlands by determining the statutory and constitutional validity of local project review criteria.

The symposium continued with Mark S. Davis, from Tulane University, reminding those in attendance that delta's, such as the Mississippi River delta, play an especially vital role in climate change mitigation by burying carbon under layers of sediment deposits. Davis suggested that planners need to understand how planning can be applied to create a "bull market" for wetlands preservation.

Manmade solutions to flooding and federal requirements for navigable waters have led to a massive loss of wetlands in the Mississippi River delta. As of the late 1990s, 46 percent of the original wetlands had been lost. And as Davis pointed out, an additional 217 million square miles were lost due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone.

He warned that the legal and policy landscape is missing for creating a bull market for wetlands. The levees are designed to keep water out of the wetlands. In Davis's words, "this is like having a no burn zone for a prairie. It kills the ecosystem." He continued by emphasizing that science and advocacy cannot save the wetlands in New Orleans without changes to laws. Planners must create the legal landscape.

"To have a bull market in wetlands, we have to look at our current playbook," said Davis. We don't have a blank legal canvas. Water rights are property rights. Planners need to make planning possible. In his closing remarks, Davis warned that many communities in Louisiana either don't have planning authority or planning technical capacity to preserve the wetlands.

At the conclusion of the symposium Lucero posed the question Alfred Bettman think about a bull market for wetlands. In response Nolon speculated that Bettman would recognize that we were creating mechanisms that were up to the challenge of the change we are facing, much as zoning met the challenges of the early 20th century.

However, both Bosselman and Davis took the position that Bettman would be surprised by the changes in both development and opinion that have occurred in recent decades. Davis agreed though that what wouldn't surprise him is that our best hope for climate change mitigation is a creative and cooperative approach: "We don't trust chance, we make it a discipline to make good things happen."

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