Resource bank: Pathfinder Ranch embarks on mitigation bank projectWritten by Christy Martinez
“A mitigation bank provides compensatory offsets to impacts,” says Michael Fraley of Pathfinder Ranch.
He gives as an example an developer who is developing a project with an unavoidable impact.
“If they don’t have offsets to their impact on-site, they’re still required to offset that impact,” says Fraley.
The mitigation bank that Pathfinder is setting up would provide offsets to a variety of third parties, including oil and gas development, as well as wind, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, etc. The Sweetwater River Conservancy will oversee the project.
“The federal government has said they want to see mitigation done instead of other types of offsite offsets,” notes Fraley. “We want to facilitate all types of business in Wyoming in a responsible manner.”
Fraley says the bank was originally envisioned to service Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy’s projects.
“We knew as part of NEPA that not only our project, but the transmission line affiliated with it, would have some sort of impacts,” he says. “As time went on, we realized we had additional credits that could help other third parties.”
Fraley emphasizes that the mitigation bank and its projects would only take place on the deeded acreage of Pathfinder Ranch and its partners, and that the Sweetwater River Conservancy’s mission is to be “a working landscape where agricultural ranching and conservation efforts work together with the single goal of improving the lands they rely upon.”
Mitigation bank details
Mitigation banks have existed since the 1970s and there are three types: single purpose, which are wetland, stream and riparian; umbrella banks, with a single governing instrument with many banks beneath it that share a service area; and resource conservation banks, which are held aside for large projects with diverse resources and many habitats.
“We are doing a resource conservation bank, with many banks under it, and each of those will share their own service area,” says Fraley.
To set up the mitigation bank, Fraley says Pathfinder has spent the last three years establishing baseline conditions on its ranches. In January 2011 they submitted a prospectus for the formation of a resource conservation bank.
“We’ve designed restoration processes to restore any of the degraded areas in the project, and that work is what offsets the impact on the developer’s side,” he explains. “They have the impact, and we have the lift. Those net actions are a balance, with no net loss of habitat.”
“We wanted to come up with scientifically-based offsets, not only to facilitate our own projects and business models, but also those of other third parties in the state,” says Fraley.
Review and regulation
All mitigation banks are federally and state regulated, governed and approved by an Interagency Review Team (IRT) made up of half federal and half state agencies.
“Our IRT is one of the biggest, with eight members from the Army Corps, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies,” says Fraley.
“Every mitigation bank is governed by a mitigation banking instrument, and it’s the regulatory mechanism that says where the bank is located, how many credits can be produced, what the market area looks like, what the conversion factor is from impact to credit and what monitoring will take place to ensure the project stays protected for longevity,” explains Fraley.
The instrument also determines whether a conservation easement, a deed restriction or both will be used to protect the project in perpetuity.
Additional habitat banks
“We have a large team of biologists working on range improvements,” says Fraley. “Through validating the successes of those range improvements, we’ll develop other habitat banks that can be submitted under the resource conservation bank, such as sage grouse, black-footed ferret and the whole suite of endangered habitat and species in the state.”
Fraley clarifies that the bank won’t be for the species themselves, but for the habitat.
“We’re validating that we can improve the habitat to support those species,” he says.
In addition to the benefits to wildlife and developers, Fraley says he sees mitigation banks as an opportunity to provide alternative revenue sources to ranchers.
“They are a mechanism to utilize throughout the state to provide additional revenues, just like oil, gas and mineral revenues, or wind and other resources,” he says.
Fraley says the Sweetwater River Conservancy expects to have approval of the mitigation bank by the end of the year or shortly after, with wetland, stream and riparian credits available early in 2013.
In anticipation of approval of the bank, the conservancy is permitting a $300,000 restoration project for Horse Creek south of Highway 220, which is the first phase. The second phase of the Horse Creek project will be from the phase one to Pathfinder Reservoir.
“We’re also designing the restoration work along the Sweetwater River from Pathfinder Reservoir all the way through Sun Ranch,” he adds.
The restoration work must be complete in advance of the sale of credits.
Of the project that totals $49 million in wetland, stream and riparian improvements, Fraley says, “The work I’m proposing for restoration to wetland, stream and riparian resources on our ranch doesn’t just trickle through the stream and riparian improvements, but through entire habitats, and the public gains a no net loss of habitats.”