Environmental Work

Eric Holthaus’ tweetstorm struck a nerve with me. Right out of college, I landed my first job working as a wetlands ecologist with a consulting firm. My job was to go out and find wetlands on large properties that were slated for development. This being the early 90s, most of them were to become golf course communities.

I thought I was mapping wetlands on properties so they could be protected. No, it was just so that the firm would know what sort of permit they needed to apply for, and how many hoops they could charge their client for jumping through. Or, even worse, it was so they’d know where to best put their stormwater ponds.

After about 9 months, I moved and got a job with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. I was writing permits* that, in theory, put limits on wetland and stream destruction. In theory, I would be minimizing habitat loss. In theory, every acre of wetland destroyed meant that more wetlands elsewhere would be restored or protected.

Every now and then, I was able to get a smaller project called off because of the difficulty in getting a permit. But every major project that came across my desk got approval. Sure, sometimes I’d manage to wrangle a minor change or two around the edges. Big projects had big money. Where there’s big money there’s political clout, and eventually I was always told to write the permit.

These permits always had stipulations for restoration or conservation easements. Which, in theory, should mitigate the damage done. I had confidence in neither. I’d never seen a created or restored wetland that had half the functional value or habitat of the natural, undisturbed one. Marshes along the edge of a BMP just are not the same as a mature forested wetland. Conservation easements are worth the paper they’re written on and a lawyer’s fee – I was never convinced they’d last more than 25 years. In perpetuity, my ass.

Besides, there was no way any regulator could follow-up on the promises made by a permittee. We were all too busy trying to keep up with new applications. So, there were no inspections of restored areas. No checks to make sure the areas that were supposed to be protected actually were.

In short: I was documenting destruction, not preventing it. After a few more moves, job changes, and the advent of the internet, I found myself out of the environmental protection game. It’s a lot less stressful. Why try to save the planet, when no one seems to actually want it saved? When there are so many forces actively seeking its destruction?

It’s been many years since then, but I still feel guilty about my defection.

*Technically, they weren’t permits, but certifications.

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