Eco-firms see growing profits

For every overfished ocean reef, every polluted bay, clear-cut forest, and degraded ecosystem on the planet, there should be someone like Keith Bowers out there fixing it up - and there soon could be.

Mr. Bowers can often be found floating face down in Chesapeake Bay in his wet suit and snorkel, grabbing eel-grass plugs from a floating cooler, then swimming down five to 10 feet to stick them in the bay floor.

Replanting eel grass lost to pollution won't restore this bay to its original clean, healthy condition - at least not by itself. But it's a step in the right direction. And a lucrative one. Bowers, who heads a 20-year-old ecosystem restoration company called Biohabitats Inc., is part of a growing phalanx of private companies who make their own green by restoring wetlands and other habitat.

Just a niche market in the 1980s, ecosystem restoration has surged in the past five years, with announced multi-year projects exceeding $70 billion worldwide and annual revenues in the US of more than $1 billion a year, industry sources say.

"From an ecological restoration standpoint, there's something on the order of tens of billions of dollars in the pipeline just in this country," says Bowers, who also is chairman of the Society for Ecological Restoration International in Tucson, Ariz. The group has 2,500 members and 14 international chapters - most of those added in just the past decade.

Some projects are easy to count. Chesapeake Bay is a multiyear, $19 billion cleanup project, Bowers notes. Another mammoth project is the Everglades wetlands restoration in Florida, with $8 billion appropriated. And billions more are being spent in the United States on restoring estuaries, watersheds, rivers, deltas, and fish species such as salmon.

Funding for such obvious restoration projects far exceeds global funding for basic conservation. Because of that, future restoration will one day be a mammoth industry vital to the planet's well-being, some say. Already ecological restoration is a major part of a "huge, almost entirely hidden" economic sector in which more than $1 trillion is being poured into restoration, much of which benefits the environment, says Storm Cunningham, an ecorestoration advocate in Alexandria, Va.

Why hidden? Because accounting for new construction is detailed and well-defined, while infrastructure restoration that helps ecosystems, such as upgraded sewer systems, are rarely accounted as ecosystem restoration. So little data are available, he says.

"The majority of economic activity is restorative but nobody acknowledges it because our systems are still in old-frontier mode," Mr. Cunningham says. "We've come to assume that economic growth is synonymous with conquering new lands and extracting virgin resources."

In his 2002 book on the subject, Cunningham's trillion-dollar estimate includes billions spent on municipal sewer infrastructure, brownfields redevelopment, and environmental and ecosystems remediation.

One sign that this integrated vision of ecoremediation is catching on can be found at Clemson University in South Carolina. Its newly formed Restoration Institute announced plans last fall to pull together professors of architecture, urban planning, and the sciences in an effort to graduate students who are able to meet a new generation of complex challenges.

"We live for the first time in an urban world, so whenever you go to build something new, you're really having to restore something," says Janice Schach, director of the new institute. "If it's not historical buildings being restored, then it's infrastructure like sewers and ecological systems like rivers and watersheds."

Others, such as the Environmental Business Journal (EBJ), an environment industry trade publication, see a positive but more subdued picture. Overall, the environmental- services industry generated $230 billion in revenues in the US and $580 billion worldwide in 2003. That included spending on water systems, garbage disposal, air-pollution control, and other services.

But EBJ counts only annual revenues - not multiyear appropriations. And within the global picture, remediation efforts such as pollution-site cleanups accounted for a far smaller $6.3 billion in 2003. Still smaller is the "natural resources management" segment within which Everglades and Chesapeake Bay cleanups fall, where revenues were about $1.2 billion last year, EBJ says.

"We are seeing healthy growth of about 10 percent a year in natural resources management," says Grant Ferrier, editor of EBJ. "It's the fastest growing segment and there's going to be more demand going forward."

Tetra Tech, one of the largest environmental remediation companies in the US, is capitalizing on that demand. It recently finished a seven-year program aimed at developing sustainable fisheries management in more than 100 coastal villages in the Philippines. Result: a 10 to 20 percent increase in fish density.

"We see restoring ecosystems as a tremendous growth area," says Mark Johnson, a senior vice president for the company in Pasadena, Calif. "We're doing a lot of work to restore fisheries and institute coastal management overseas, a lot for the World Bank."

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