Posted by Christopher Kelly
A recent NYTimes article, “Lawmakers, Lobbyists and the Administration Join Forces to Overhaul the Endangered Species Act,” by Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman outlined a contentious relationship between the environmental concerns of scientists and citizens who believe in government-sanctioned protections for threatened species and the businesses and landowners that want to deregulate and loosen some of the laws. On one side, there are strong reasons to fear the extinction of any species on Earth and to promote the laws that protect endangered or threatened plants and animals.
On the other side are the oil companies, farmers, loggers, and developers who are often stymied by laws that inhibit them from their business-as-usual practices in areas where protected species live. It is a complicated debate with high stakes. If lawmakers vote on business-friendly policy changes that could lead to species extinction, both sides stand to lose in the long term even as businesses may realize short-term gains.
As an optimist and a problem solver by nature, I believe that there is almost always a positive solution to seemingly impossible situations. I run a software company that is in the business of solving complex infrastructure workflow challenges. One of those challenges happens to involve the Monarch Butterfly, which may be added to the Endangered Species list if that status is deemed appropriate and necessary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The impact of this on businesses that own and operate on lands in the butterflies’ migration path would be significant.
To put this in perspective, rights-of-way lands owned by electric utilities, for example, cover approximately 450,000 miles or between 9 and 11 million acres. Utilities routinely use some combination of mowing and spraying with herbicides to control weed growth, including, perhaps, the milkweed where Monarchs lay their eggs.
Conservation organizations are interested in finding out if these lands qualify as habitat for pollinators, including the protected, threatened, and endangered species. In addition there is interest in increasing the population of native and honey bees, which pollinator habitat supports as well. It is in everyone’s interest to support these efforts, not only to protect the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, but also to make sure that the utilities that use potential habitats can continue their operations in sustainable ways. That’s where science, technology, and creative thinking can help. Studies are currently underway to map out a mowing and spraying schedule that will actually benefit the native milkweed growth, while inhibiting the invasive weeds that the utilities need to control, potentially saving both money and the Monarch. Pinpointing the most beneficial protocol is complicated and requires extensive data collection and analysis, but the technical tools to facilitate the workflow exist.
With a fair dose of cooperation between the utilities, the technical analysts, scientists, and the conservationists we can all end up with a winning and sustainable solution. (Read about a current effort that my company, Clearion, is involved with here.)
Finding solutions that are mutually beneficial for our environmental and economic interests may not be easy or obvious, but I believe they are within reach when we employ new technology, scientific insight, and human ingenuity. Tools that facilitate right-of-way management practices while building Monarch habitat may even improve efficacy and reduce long-term costs. Who can argue with that?