One of the unexamined assumptions that frequently put business interests at odds with environmentalists is that “going green” inevitably means a loss of jobs and is detrimental to local economies. But a closer look reveals that such zero-sum thinking misses the mark.
A recent article in Forbes about the new “restoration” economy notes that we often associate economic growth with expansion of the human-built environment — so-called “gray infrastructure,” such as roads and commercial and residential development. While such expansion has been good for the economy of our region, it’s been devastating from an ecological standpoint. All too often, development comes at the expense of healthy watersheds, wetlands, estuaries and other sensitive ecosystems critical to a healthy environment.
But economists are discovering that what makes sense from an environmental standpoint also makes sense economically. In the face of increased pollution, climate change, ocean acidification and sea-level rise, the restoration economy is aimed at restoring and expanding these natural systems — nature’s free flood control and water filtration systems — so that they can once more do what only nature can.
What’s more, researchers at the University of North Carolina recently released preliminary findings that include several eye-popping statistics. For example, the green economy was responsible for 3.4 million jobs in 2011— significant in itself. But here’s the kicker — the people who restore habitat and undo some of the damage left over from the industrial economy generate between 10.4 and 39.7 family wage jobs per million dollars invested. Compare that with the oil and gas industry, which generates just over 5 jobs per million dollars of investment and you begin to see the outlines of a new, more sustainable economic paradigm emerging.
Here in Washington, we have our own examples of how the restoration economy works to create good jobs in local communities. One of the best is the 14 Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups (RFEGs), a statewide network of nonprofit salmon enhancement organizations created by the Legislature in 1990 to help restore ecosystems that support the species. RFEGs represent some of the best features of the restoration economy. For example, between 1995 and 2013, they used $26 million in federal and state funds to leverage almost $180 million in new money for restoration projects in local communities around the state — an almost seven-fold return on investment. This means local businesses were able to provide a wide range of family-wage jobs.
But that’s not all. Working collaboratively with landowners, local and tribal governments, organizations such as the Nisqually and Capital Land trusts, and thousands of volunteers, RFEGs opened up more than 900 miles of new salmon spawning habitat by completing more than 800 local fish projects and utilizing almost 1.6 million volunteer hours. Salmon have been spotted making use of the new habitat within days and sometimes hours of project completion, giving new meaning to the phrase, “if you build it, they will come.”
RFEGs also make a major investment in local education for K-12 students from public and private schools. A familiar example is the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail. The trail is an effort by Taylor Shellfish and the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group supported with financial help from the Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes and a host of enthusiastic volunteers. Each November, the trail provides thousands of people the opportunity to see one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events as thousands of wild chum return to spawn.
This fall, the South Sound enhancement group (spsseg.org) and the Nooksak Salmon Enhancement Association received a grant from the Puget Sound Partnership for the Citizen Action Training School. More than 50 local citizens from a wide range of backgrounds received more than 50 hours of education from experts on some of the critical issues facing Puget Sound recovery. In return, the school’s students promised to give back at least 50 hours of volunteer time on a variety of projects ranging from encouraging local landowners to consider “soft armoring” instead of impregnable bulkheads to supporting legislation that will benefit Puget Sound recovery. No wonder that at a recent press conference, Gov. Jay Inslee called the school one of his favorite programs.
Several years ago, former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell was asked what the listing of Puget Sound chinook under the Endangered Species Act might mean for our region. “In our efforts to save the salmon,” predicted Schell, “it may turn out that the salmon saves us.” The restoration economy might be part of that salvation.
John Rosenberg is lead pastor at The Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd in Olympia and serves on the Board of the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group. He can be reached at jprosenberg360@ gmail.com.