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Watershed Restoration, the New Job Growth Sector

By Cathy P. Kellon, Ecotrust It’s late August on Abernathy Creek in western Washington State and a construction crew is awhirl hauling wood to replace log jams that have been absent from this stream for decades — all part of an effort to reconnect the stream with its floodplain. After each frequent rainstorm here in...

Restoration work is providing jobs while improving river habitat along Washington State’s Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

By Cathy P. Kellon, Ecotrust

It’s late August on Abernathy Creek in western Washington State and a construction crew is awhirl hauling wood to replace log jams that have been absent from this stream for decades — all part of an effort to reconnect the stream with its floodplain. After each frequent rainstorm here in the Northwest, sediment clouds the water and the swift, rutted channel leaves few places for young fish to find refuge or returning salmon to spawn.  The crew is supported by the local Cowlitz Tribe and a number of other public and private partners who hope to reset the system’s natural ecological processes and see salmon return in higher numbers.

Over four months, this project crew will carve out historic meandering channels, replace large wood in-stream, and plant native riparian trees and shrubs. In the end, the stream will wander back and forth laterally so it can craft what salmon ecologists call a “mosaic of shifting habitat,” shaped by seasonally varied pulses of water, nutrients, sediment, and wood, which will, in turn, be a boon to biological diversity and salmon productivity.

Projects like this are also key to human productivity, and they are creating a whole new economy in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Call it the Restoration Economy.

A University of Oregon study from 2010 found that each $1 million invested in forest or watershed restoration generates between 14.7 and 23.8 jobs, and between $2.1 and $2.6 million dollars for the local economy. Earlier this year, we at Ecotrust applied the U of O’s economic multipliers for restoration work to a catalog of Oregon projects from 2001 to 2010 and found the projects generated an estimated 6,483 jobs and nearly a billion dollars in economic output around the state.

Picture of Abernathy Creek restoration work
Workers restore natural stream flows along the Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust


“The economic downturn of 2008 led to many of my civil engineering friends losing their jobs. With a sputtering economy and a slow growth of the infrastructure sector…the restoration economy remained steady. The Abernathy Creek project is a great example of the work we get to do. It’s pretty rewarding to watch these projects come to fruition and then watch the fish return. Work doesn’t get much better than that.” -Deb Stewart, PE, water resources engineer, Inter-Fluve, Inc. 

Ecotrust jobs restoration chart
Figure from Ecotrust’s report on restoration jobs.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, because we know that restoration work is occurring across the country.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that its restoration projects produce up to 33 jobs per $1 million invested, where the work involves labor-intensive activities like tree planting.

Restoration projects go well beyond typical “environmental” work — traditionally good jobs for fisheries scientists and academics. Projects create jobs for construction workers, landscapers, heavy equipment operators, and technical experts such as engineers. Restoration projects also create demand for local businesses, such as plant nurseries, quarries, and others.  The restoration on Abernathy Creek in Washington is illustrative. To date the project has employed engineers, general contractors, a rigging company, and suppliers of wood and rock materials. All told, six private firms have been awarded contracts and there is still more work to occur this fall, when nursery materials will be bought and help is needed with streamside planting.

“Habitat restoration jobs pay dividends twice, first in creating good, local jobs immediately, and then, for many decades to come, through increased benefits from fisheries, tourism, and resiliency for coastal communities.” -Eric Schwaab, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries

And, unlike in many other sectors of our economy, restoration jobs can’t be outsourced to far-off places. A University of Oregon study found that 90 cents of every dollar spent on restoration stays in the state of Oregon, and 80 cents of every dollar spent stays in the county where a project is located.  And restoration tends to drive economic development and job creation in rural communities, which typically have higher unemployment rates than their urban neighbors.

The long-term benefits that result from restoring natural capital — improved water and air quality, fish populations, and overall biodiversity — all continue to accrue and pay out over time, providing natural advantages for local, regional, and national economies.  And while a monetary value can’t – or more importantly, shouldn’t – be ascribed to absolutely everything, it’s a fact of life in our modern society that if you count something, it winds up counting more. We’re just starting to count the full benefits of the Restoration Economy.

Figure from Ecotrust's report on restoration jobs in Oregon
Figure from Ecotrust’s report on restoration jobs.


Cathy Kellon is the Water and Watersheds Program Director at Ecotrust, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering a natural model of development for the benefit of communities, economies, and ecosystems here in the Pacific salmon region that stretches from Alaska to California and also around the world. She oversees the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI), a multi-million dollar, collaborative effort to restore the major ecological functions of high priority river basins in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The WWRI is a partnership between Ecotrust, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Region 6 of the USDA Forest Service, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the Bureau of Land Management, Region 1 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The Cowlitz Tribe received WWRI funding in 2012 for their project to restore Abernathy Creek.






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