A new private-public fund aims to bring back North America’s Amazon.

The Mississippi River Basin—which generates $200 billion in economic value annually from commerce and recreation—is central to commerce and a pillar in the U.S. economy. Individuals and businesses rely on the Mississippi for transportation, water, food, recreation, and a variety of goods and services.

Over the last 75 years, commercial activity, development, and storms have degraded this essential ecosystem, threatening the environment, culture, and economy. Today, the United States Business Council for Sustainable Development (US BCSD) and Restore the Earth Foundation announced a new private-public Collaborative Fund to restore the Mississippi River Basin and its coastal wetlands.

The fund includes investments from US BCSD Water Synergy Project members and is supported by an innovative model that accounts for the value created by the investment. In this interview, Susan Fernandes, director of US BCSD’s Louisiana Water Synergy Project, and Restore the Earth Co-Founder and Executive Director PJ Marshall talk about their vision for the fund, why businesses are investing in landscape-scale restoration, and Restore the Earth’s ultimate goal to restore 1 million acres in “North America’s Amazon.”

What is your vision for the Collaborative Fund?

Fernandes: We want to take action on landscape-scale coastal restoration and use our Water Synergy Project model to demonstrate how business can lead the way toward natural infrastructure solutions.

Marshall: Our vision is twofold: We want to demonstrate a solid business-led initiative that can unlock access to public funds, and we want to get started on our ultimate vision of restoring 1 million acres in North America’s Amazon.

One of the unique aspects about the Collaborative Fund is that you are matching business funds with public dollars. What are the benefits to business in large-scale landscape restoration?

Fernandes: There are a variety of benefits, depending on the partner: It could be about protecting their state, the communities where their employees live, or their operations and business—or it could be all of those things.

For some of our partners, this is about protecting their operations. Most of our project members are from heavy industries—refineries, chemicals, steel mills—and they can’t move those operations, so investing in landscape restoration creates a natural buffer against storms that may pose a risk to their operations. Other partners are protecting their customers and local communities: They made commitments to replenish water and be sustainable in their operations, and this investment is helping them fulfill those commitments. 

Marshall: Almost every business relies on natural resources for the services that ecosystems provide. The big, visionary objective for business is to restore and steward the natural resources on which they depend for their core business activity.

It’s also about the partnership. These companies can join a collaborative group that has similar interests and combine their resources to do something at scale. These are visionary organizations that recognize that it takes multiple partners to do something that has significant impact. 

Tell us about the first project you’ll be starting in October in Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana.

Marshall: The initial funds will be used to restore the first 1,000 acres of a total of 4,000 at Louisiana’s Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area. This is the largest land mass that provides the last line of defense against the threat of storms and land loss, protecting more than 250,000 people, including the United Houma Nation and Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe. The region is also home to threatened and endangered species, commercial and recreational fisheries, and a rich diversity of wildlife and birds.

We have the potential to bring back essential ecosystems by investing in restoration of degraded land, forests, and coastlines. These ecosystems offer diverse physical, biological, and socioeconomic resources. People and businesses depend on them. Restoration can also enhance and protect the overall health, resiliency, and sustainability of local communities—especially in the face of the potentially devastating effects of climate change.

The fact that we are starting a project like this immediately points to another reason companies want to join: They know now is the time to stop talking and start taking action. We are using this first project as an opportunity to demonstrate how landscape restoration can be scaled and replicated.

PJ, you have been working for a number of years on landscape restoration. What drew you to this work—why is it so essential?

Marshall: When you grow up on the Mississippi River, as I did, you recognize how much the natural landscape is part of your life—it’s part of your culture, your livelihood, and your identity. I first got involved in landscape restoration after Hurricane Katrina, which was the largest forestry disaster in U.S. history. For people in the area, this disaster not only affected where they live, it affected how they make their living and how they see themselves.

After working to restore the region following Hurricane Katrina, we started looking at what was happening on a global basis, and how we have degraded and damaged our natural resources over the past 75 years, including right here in our own backyard, in the heart of North America. I knew we could replicate our model and take steps to address this degradation on a bigger scale—a landscape scale.

Susan, why did US BCSD decide to partner with Restore the Earth?

Fernandes: My passion is showing that business can play a role in these activities and can lead the way in restoring and maintaining natural resources. Our objective is to get industry engaged and more visible.

Restore the Earth also has a real, project-oriented focus. They are taking action, and our Water Synergy Project members are able to get verifiable accounting for the environmental, social, and economic value that their investment creates. 

Restore the Earth’s EcoMetrics Model provides a unique benefit to business partners—quantifying the social, environmental, and economic benefits of landscape restoration in real financial terms. How does this work?

 Marshall: Our EcoMetrics Model measures the full value for each environmental, social, and economic outcome produced by ecosystem restoration, and it reports on those outcomes in monetary terms.
We provide a formal, detailed report to funders in a format ready for third-party audit and in a form that accounts for intangible assets on the funder’s balance sheet. This supports the business case for investment, and it allows funders to take credit for greenhouse gas offsets, water-quality offsets, and other environmental benefits produced, in perpetuity. If desired, they can use the environmental offsets to mitigate the portion of their climate footprint that cannot be offset at the source.

The EcoMetrics Model is compliant with the global standards for ecosystem services. Restore the Earth’s work creates value with outcomes that truly benefit communities by enhancing quality of life and sustaining the factors that provide for environmental, social, and economic resiliency.

This project is part of a larger initiative to restore North America’s Amazon. Tell us about your plans.

 Marshall: The Mississippi River Basin is North America’s Amazon, the fourth largest watershed on Earth. Its southernmost region, from southern Illinois down and across the Gulf Coast, is the most ecologically degraded region in North America. Seventy-five years ago, there were 24 million acres of forest here, but now only 5 million acres remain. In the Gulf Coast, the wetlands are also receding. Every hour, Louisiana’s coastal zone loses an area of wetlands the size of a football field. These ecosystems are critical to North America, and they are critical globally.

In collaboration with our partners, our vision is to restore 1 million acres in North America’s Amazon. It seems overwhelming to restore an area that large, but this is a tipping point: By restoring 1 million acres, we can reduce the U.S. carbon footprint by 2 percent and reverse the effects of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico by 12 percent, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. This restoration will also support the long-term resilience of the region, which is a critical economic hub that generates $200 billion in financial value. The basin produces 92 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78 percent of all the grain grown in the United States is transported down the Mississippi River, and 30 percent of the seafood in the United States comes from the Gulf Coast.

The health of this area is important from a national and global standpoint. We believe that if we can restore that million acres, we can show that it can be done, and we can replicate this model for landscape restoration on a global scale.