A Primer on Changes to the Endangered Species Act

If you’ve been looking at the news—or social media—this month, you’ve probably seen that changes are coming to the Endangered Species Act. The changes will go into effect 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register. This blog provides a primer on these changes.

  • The new rules allow greater discretion on whether or not newly listed threatened species will be protected (they will not longer be guaranteed the same rights as endangered species).
    • Previously, species were listed as threatened based on the likelihood they would become endangered in the “foreseeable future.” Under the new rules, foreseeable future is determined on a case-by-case basis. This means opens the door for ignoring the long-term impacts of climate change, development pressures, and other factors that could decrease a species’ habitat, ability to breed, or forage.
    • Species previously listed as threatened will still be protected under the former rules.
  • The changes remove language that required decisions about listing a species to be based on the best available science and “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”

What will these changes mean? How this all actually plays out is to be determined, since a variety of organizations are planning lawsuits to challenge these changes—but these rollbacks could have negative impacts for those who are working toward species conservation.

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Meet Davis Ladd

Great Ecology would like to introduce Davis Ladd, who has joined the Great Ecology team in San Diego as the Marketing Coordinator. Davis holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Redlands and has worked in marketing and product development, including for other companies focused on connecting people and nature. In his free time, Davis enjoys hiking and landscape photography. He is also an avid golfer and a lifelong San Diego Padres fan.

A young white wearing a black shirt with khaki pants and a brown baseball cap stands on a rocky outcropping, with snowy mountains and trees in the background.
Davis, hiking in California
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Great Ecology Founder Featured in New Book

This summer, Natural Resource Damages: A Guide to Litigating and Resolving NRD Cases, edited by Brian D. Israel, Brett Marston, and Lauren Daniel was published by the American Bar Association. Great Ecology is pleased to announce the book contains a chapter by our President and Founder, Dr. Mark Laska. The book, with contributions from multiple Natural Resource Damage (NRD) experts, explores NRD topics related to litigation strategy, cost-effect resolution of NRD cases, and jurisprudence related to the injury of natural resources.

Dr. Laska’s chapter, “The Future of NRD Restoration is ‘Banking’” focuses on the challenges of implementing habitat restoration projects that offset environmental injuries and why these challenges should make purchasing credits from established banks more appealing. He argues that utilizing mitigation or NRD banking professionals increases the likelihood of a successful project because these professionals have a vested interest in overseeing successful projects and that by purchasing offset credits from a bank, permitting time can be drastically reduced.

Dr. Laska is a subject matter expert in NRD expert developing and implementing a NRD response strategy for multiple active national contracts for states and trustees, large industrial, pharmaceutical, and energy sector clients and their legal counsels. The team at Great Ecology is highly experienced in completing Natural Resource Damage Assessments from concept through final report and has provided expert witness support and strategy to litigators, companies, and state trustees. Dr. Laska has served as an expert witness on numerous projects involving NRD and other ecological topics across the United States, is highly knowledgeable in habitat restoration planning and design, and has 25 years of experience, 18 as CEO of Great Ecology. 

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PFAS: A Primer on “Forever Chemicals” and their Ecological Impact

by Amber Sparks

Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) represent a complex class of chemical compounds that have been used in the manufacturing of household and commercial products since the 1960s. At the time, PFAS were revolutionary — a compound that could resist heat and chemical reactions, while also repelling oil, stains, grease, and water. The military, firefighting, aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronic industries were all on board. Before long PFAS were incorporated into a variety of products ranging from firefighting foam to commonly used items such as Teflon cookware, fast-food packaging, clothing, carpets, furniture, and cosmetics.

Although once a ground-breaking innovation, today we understand that PFAS are deleterious to human health and the environment, and the longer-chain sub-compound PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are even more toxic, subject to bioaccumulation and persistence in the environment. Even at low levels, PFAS have been linked to cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid and liver disease, decreased fertility, harm to developing fetuses and young children, and overall weakened immune systems.

While the scientific community had begun to identify these impacts years ago, it wasn’t until 2016 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a PFAS health advisory for drinking water that the PFAS compounds truly emerged as a contaminant of serious concern at both federal and state-levels. The 2016 health advisory set the combined exposure level for both PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. While the EPA deemed this recommendation sufficient to protect human health, in 2018 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a study that found exposure to drinking water contaminated with PFOS and PFOA could be harmful at levels up to 10 times lower than previously estimated by the EPA.

With the release of the ATSDR study, concerns surrounding PFAS contamination quickly elevated making headlines in the New York Times, Fox News, and many others. Yet despite public response for more stringent regulations, there continues to be many overarching challenges regarding PFAS contamination management. First and foremost, because PFAS have become ubiquitous in the environment, it is extremely difficult to identify sources, pathways, exposed populations, and levels of exposure and it’s likely that other unknown and undiscovered PFAS exist within the environment as impurities or byproducts of chemical production. Additionally, while health and occurrence data and validated analytical methods are available for certain PFAS (i.e. PFOA and PFOS), there are potentially hundreds of other PFAS with limited or no toxicity information.

In response to these data gaps, the EPA has positioned to take serious action on PFAS (see 2018 National Leadership Summit and EPA’s 2019 PFAS Action Plan), and several states have begun implementing measures of their own. While these new developments will hopefully prevent the spread of PFAS contamination, they may also create potential liabilities and consequences for industries that previously or currently manufacture, use, or sell PFAS or PFAS-containing products. At this juncture, where environment and industry intersect, Great Ecology steps up to the plate, with an understanding of the cutting-edge issues and regulations, providing ecologically focused solutions for areas that have been subject to PFAS contamination.

Great Ecology offers services in natural resource management, including NRD assessments and reporting, expert witness testimony, habitat restoration planning and cost estimation, and litigation strategy, all while maintaining strict confidentiality. The scale of our NRD work has ranged from confined sites with PFAS specific injuries, to regional projects encompassing hundreds of square miles and thousands of groundwater, surface water, soil and sediment samples. We bring rigorous scientific studies and extensive knowledge to substantiate injury to natural resource and reductions in the ecosystem services they provide, which can stand up in a court of law – to protect critical natural resources while maintaining the interests of our clients.

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Rebuilding After Disaster Strikes

By Liz Clift

The Midwest has been pummeled by storms—and if you’re looking at mainstream online news outlets, you might not even notice amidst other national and international stories. However, Midwestern flooding has implications not only for crops (such as corn, soy, and pigs), which is the focus of the limited news coverage, but also ecology and the environment.

Some scientists suggest that these floods are likely linked to climate change. David Easterling, Chief of the Scientific Services division at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, has pointed out that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water and that much of the rain that’s fallen on the Midwest in recent weeks originated over the Gulf of Mexico. Assuming that this unprecedented rainfall is linked to climate change, we should expect to see this trend continue in the future, perhaps returning parts of the Midwest to the marshier lands that existed prior to the widespread use of tilling.

We know that critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, that some people will be permanently displaced, and that clean-up will cost some states billions of dollars. In addition, we can anticipate prices for corn and soybeans will skyrocket due to lower yields. Higher prices for corn and soy will impact not only the food industry, but also the gas (ethanol) industry, some plastics production, and more.

Missouri Flood Image. Captured by Mary Allee

However, the near-term human consequences will have devastating impacts on the people who live in the Midwest (some of whom have lost their homes, livelihoods, or both—or may by the end of this growing season) as well as elsewhere. This most recent set of flooding isn’t even the only flooding parts of the Midwest have experienced this year.

Once the current set of floodwaters recede, ecological consequences will become more apparent. We can probably expect to find that rivers or streams have shifted course (as sometimes happens during large flood events); increased eutrophication in rivers, streams, and the Gulf; rich farmlands scraped bare by rushing floodwaters (with those soils either deposited on other farmlands or at the deltas of the region’s streams and rivers); chemical contamination; cars and buildings in places where they shouldn’t be; soil compaction; and reductions in macroinvertebrates (likely with slow recolonization in areas that have previously experienced flooding this year).

We’ve seen similar floods before in this part of the Midwest, including the Great Flood of 1993—and there may be lessons to learn from that flood as recovery efforts begin with the current flooding, as well as models from around the country. Rebuilding may include efforts to:

  • Stabilize streams and streambanks through a variety of traditional and green engineering methods, as Colorado did after the 2013 floods;
  • Adjust rebuilding homes, businesses, and infrastructure to account for rivers and streams that have changed course (and any new mapping of floodplains by FEMA);
  • Renewed efforts to reconnect floodplains to rivers to reduce the load of water on relatively narrow channels;
  • Conversion of farmland into temporary or permanent prairie systems through Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs or similar land conversion and protection programs;
  • Restoration of prairie and agricultural lands, which may include removing debris; recontouring the land; soil amendments; revegetation; rebuilding key structures that were damaged or destroyed; and more;
  • Water quality monitoring;
  • Rebuilt/restructured levees; and
  • Other measures with the goal of creating a more stable relationship between people and floodwaters.

Within recovery efforts, ecological design should play a central role. Certainly, ecological design can’t prevent flooding from occurring, but ecological design may encourage the development of more resilient landscapes, which allow communities to remain more resilient as well—not only in the face of flooding, but in the case of drought, wildland fires, and other natural disasters.

In addition, engaging ecologists from the beginning can help streamline recovery efforts. Ecologists and ecological designers can work with project teams to design projects that are more likely to experience long-term restoration success while adding aesthetic and even economic value to impacted communities and sites. Ecologists are skilled at examining the plethora of factors that contribute to the ecological function and health of the site, and have even developed a variety of rapid assessment protocols that allow them to use a variety of objective and subjective tools to assess ecological health. This data can then be used to develop restoration and management strategies.

Streamlining restoration efforts ultimately saves the client—including municipalities—money. As cities, towns, and businesses begin to consider their options for rebuilding, may we humbly suggest you include ecologists and ecological designers on your team?

Great Ecology has experience helping towns and municipalities recover from impacts to widespread flooding, including over varied topographical terrain. We offer solutions that are designed to decrease the impacts of future flood events.

Featured image on this blog is from NOAA.

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Great Ecology announces regional expansion to the Gulf Coast

Today, Great Ecology is announcing a major regional expansion into the Gulf Coast by opening an office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   With the massive wetlands restoration plans of Louisiana, dramatic environmental changes in Texas, and habitat improvement opportunities throughout the Gulf of Mexico region, Great Ecology sees the need for its world class habitat restoration-driven services.

The newly opened office will be led by Claire Odenweller, who has worked in Louisiana and Texas for the past decade.  Dr. Mark Laska, CEO of Great Ecology said, “Great Ecology has worked every Gulf Coast states on multiple projects over the years from our remotely located offices and we realized that a physical presence can only lead to better client servicing.  The opportunity to open an office in Louisiana means we will now be able to offer clients more face-to-face interaction while continuing to develop our practice in the southeastern United States.”

Claire Odenweller stated, “my background as a professional wetland scientist with substantial environmental work in mitigation project and wetland banks, including permitting and ecological assessments dovetails with the core services Great Ecology offers and I am excited to grow our practice in this region.”

Active regional projects include Dallas’s Trinity River riverfront park planning and design, the Humble, TX mitigation bank assessment, and several mitigation and wetland projects in Louisiana.  Previously Great Ecology worked on a multi-state natural resource damage (NRD) coastal restoration project from a major oil spill. 

The office is located at 8550 United Plaza Blvd. and can be reached via (225) 416-5353.  For more information contact Jessa Spainhower or Claire Odenweller.

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Waterfront Esplanade Opens Along East River!

The best things come to those who wait—and it’s with that in mind that Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Pier 35, on the East River Waterfront, is now open! The East River Waterfront Esplanade soft opened in late 2018—but fully opened to the public in April of this year. The project, was led by SHoP Architects, with landscape architecture design from Ken Smith Workshop, ecological consulting from Great Ecology, and engineering from HDR and ARUP. The site includes a new eco-park and urban beach, dubbed Mussel Beach, which was influenced by the pre-industrial East River shoreline and provides habitat for a variety of aquatic species, notably blue and ribbed mussels.

Great Ecology was instrumental in providing scientifically-based design recommendations for the habitat creation feature of the park, including the intertidal shellfish habitat. As part of our role in this project we developed a grant, submitted by NYC Economic Development Corporation, which funded a two-year intertidal shellfish habitat creation study. Great Ecology staff evaluated biotic and abiotic factors at the Site, which included water quality testing, pollution sources, and oyster survivorship and recruitment monitoring to determine whether shellfish could survive and flourish at the chosen location. A “habitat slab,” designed by Ken Smith with Great Ecology’s design guidelines, was installed in 2012 and recruitment of young shellfish onto the slab has already started, which means visitors to the park can see how the East River waterfront aquatic species have been colonizing the habitat slab.

Eco Park/Pier 35, East River Waterfront, NYC Location: New York, NY Architect: SHoP Landscape Architect: Ken Smith Landscape Architect

Restoring and revitalizing shellfish habitat to the East River, which was once home to massive populations of shellfish, is a lofty goal—but one worth pursuing as shellfish act as natural filters. Their presence can improve water quality and offers an excellent indicator of ecological health. This innovative project serves as a pilot for sustainable waterfront development in New York and New Jersey and earned the 2009 Design Award of Excellence from the Public Design Commission of NYC and the 2019 Best New Infrastructure award from MASterworks. The Pier 35 ecopark and urban beach opened to the public in April 2019.

Measuring Mussel Size
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Great Ecology’s Latest Team Members!

Great Ecology’s been growing and we’re thrilled to welcome the following people to our team!

Cate Collinson – Cate began at Great Ecology earlier this month as an Associate Ecologist, based in our New York office. She brings six years of experience working with the Canadian provincial, municipal, and private sectors as well as at the state-level in the United States. She specializes in regulatory support, ecological surveys and sampling for both terrestrial and aquatic environments, and habitat suitability surveys.

Claire Odenweller – Claire joined Great Ecology earlier in June as a Senior Landscape Architect and is leading our brand new Baton Rouge office. Claire brings extensive experience in wetland mitigation, particularly in the southeastern United States, and is adept at developing and overseeing solutions that offset impacts to natural resources.

Ellie Garza, PLA – Ellie joined the Denver team in early May as an Associate Landscape Architect. She’s a professional landscape architect and dynamic team player who excels at developing creative and resilient ecological designs. Ellie’s past project experience includes analysis and planning, design development and construction documentation, public-led planning, and visual communication. She’s a Council of Landscape Architectural Boards (CLARB) Certified Landscape Architect. And, did we mention she’s also a certified small unmanned aircraft systems commercial remote pilot?

Esa Crumb, MS – Esa joined Great Ecology in February as an Associate Ecologist in Denver. She has more than ten years of experience in wetland and plant ecology, restoration planning, and environmental permitting. She’s well-versed in the nuances of the Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting, Endangered Species Act consultation, and natural resource assessments and has worked on multiple mitigation planning projects.

Justin Heyerdahl, MESM – Justin is an Ecologist who joined Great Ecology’s San Diego office in April. He brings a strong background in mapping, visual story-telling, and data science. His experience includes modeling species distribution, landscape connectivity, and climate change adaptation. He uses spatial and non-spatial analytics to help leverage ecological processes for building resilience through design and planning.

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Preparing the Garden? You’ll Want to Consider the Bees

By Liz Clift

Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may already be starting to prepare, or even plant your garden beds. However, did you know that by preparing your bed (or cleaning up winter debris from your yard) too early you can disrupt native pollinator habitat?

Native pollinators may take shelter in brush piles, reeds, and leaf litter from last year’s garden—overwintering, hibernating, or laying their eggs there. They may even nest directly in the soil. If you turn these piles under, or throw them in a compost bin, you could be interrupting the pollinator’s life cycles (and their ability to readily pollinate your garden).

So, when should you prep your garden?

As a general rule of thumb, once temperatures are consistently above 50 to 60 degrees—which is the temperature range preferred by different native bees (honey bees will emerge at the low end of this temperature spectrum) —you can start prepping.

If you can, avoid tilling or turning over the soil as much as possible throughout the year. This is because many ground nesting bees spend much of their lives underground—potentially even at the base of the plant they pollinate.

Why does this matter?

Although the honey bee is the poster child of bee population declines, native bee species actually pollinate large numbers of our crops, as well as native plants, and their numbers are in decline as well. And they’re far from the only native pollinators that rely on debris and shelter in your yard to find areas to nest, forage, or even drink water.

We can support their populations not only by minimizing disturbance of their habitat in our gardens and yards, but also by making sure that we create pollinator friendly habitat that includes a variety of native species, nesting sites, and hydration sites—especially in areas where water is less abundant. Offering a mix of plants that flower at various times throughout the year is also a great thing to do. If you have leafy crops, like lettuce or kale, allowing some of the plants to bolt can also provide additional food sources for native pollinators.

And of course, we can also help support native pollinator populations by minimizing our use of -icides, which can impact not only pollinators, but other insects, fungi and plants that these pollinators rely on for food and shelter.

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Seven More Influential Women in Ecology!

Last week we posted a list of 13 women who have helped shape our understanding of the natural world, our place in it, and how we can learn from, restore, and better protect it. That list (as well as this one!) was far from complete—but as we approach the end of Women’s History Month, we want to cap it off by highlighting seven additional women who are important figures in ecology, restoration, conservation, and related fields.

Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson co-founded Blue Latitudes, an organization dedicated to transforming decommissioned oil rigs into productive reef habitats, which is especially important in a world where reefs continue to struggle.

Gretchen Daily, Ph.D. helped establish the concept of “natural capital,” which views the goods and services that our environment provides as akin to our notion of traditional economic, or “man-made,” capital—in other words, natural capital can become more or less productive over time as a result of human activity, and should be taken into consideration when assessing a system.. This concept and related ones, such as ecosystem services, are fundamental to the field of ecology.

Phyllis Faber co-founded the United States’ first agricultural land trust in Marin County, California—preventing large tracts of land from being sold to developers. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust aims to permanently protect more than 100,000 acres of family farms and ranches by 2040.

Lois Gibbs’ activism led to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which is used to locate and clean up toxic waste, or “Superfund” sites across the country.

Jane Goodall’s primatology work has transformed our understanding of chimpanzees and redefined our concept of the relationship between humans and animals. The Jane Goodall Institute promotes a holistic approach to conservation that revolves around local communities. Goodall holds a Ph.D. in ethology and her research was focused on the behaviors of “free-living chimpanzees.”

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