What is it?
A Conservation Offset (a.k.a., biodiversity offsets, environmental offsets, habitat offsets, wetland offsets, etc.) compensates for unavoidable ecological impacts at one site, by restoring or creating habitat at another site, purchasing land to protect. The idea is to replace the features lost or degraded to development in order to retain or increase the function of the system as a whole. The environmental gain at an offset site must be in addition to what would occur if a developer did not invest in an offset. Typically required as a condition of approval, offsets should be viewed as the last available option in the mitigation hierarchy where impacts must be avoided (first) or minimized (next) prior to considering an offset (last). In some cases, and ‘in-lieu payment’ is accepted, whereby the developer makes a payment and transfers offsetting responsibility to the municipality.
How can municipalities use it?
A municipality can require a Conservation Offset as a condition of approval for development in cases where the ecological impact is deemed unavoidable. Municipalities can also require payments in lieu in order to fund higher-priority ecological restoration projects. A municipality can establish a voluntary or required offset program to incentivize land developers to protect, restore, or enhance land so that natural infrastructure system benefits are protected and realized within the municipality. Such a program can be targeted to protect habitat for a sensitive species, or ensure important natural infrastructure assets remain on the landscape.
There are several federal (e.g., Fisheries Act) and provincial (e.g., Alberta Wetland Policy) policies that provide for the use of offsetting that a municipality can consider. Wetland offsetting is the most common type of municipal conservation offset in Alberta.
What are the advantages?
Conservation Offsets have the following advantages:
Can create “no net loss” of function or services while still accommodating development
Can in some cases lead to environmental gains and restoration that would not otherwise have occurred
Do not need to be large-scale and complex
Can catalyze creation of mitigation banks and market opportunities, whereby restoration happens in advance and credits are made available for purchase
What should you watch out for?
No tool is a silver bullet. There are important factors to consider when using Conservation Offsets, including:
Need a clear picture of where your natural infrastructure exists and and where it is at risk
It can become easy to ignore the mitigation hierarchy and move straight to offsetting and in-lieu payments rather than simple avoidance
An offset requires a comparable offsetting action, and it can be difficult to establish what those would be
May protect natural infrastructure functions and services outside the area from which the functions and services are being removed
Offset site must be perpetually protected from conflicting uses through conservation easement or other
Alberta currently has enabling legislation for conservation offsets, but it is vague and there is no supporting policy or guidelines for municipalities
Metrics used to assess equivalence and permanency of an offset are complex; an offset may not accurately reflect the natural infrastructure function or service lost
Payment schemes may deter voluntary conservation actions
Offsetting (especially with in-lieu payments) can transfer the restoration liability to the municipality
Market-based banking programs can require offset brokers to facilitate the buying and selling of credits
How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?
Conservation Offsets help to maintain natural infrastructure by ensuring that an unavoidable impact to the system is compensated for by an offsetting ecological gain. The compensatory action protects, restores, or enhances an offset site that may not have otherwise been protected, restored, or enhanced. Although the development may permanently destroy or degrade an asset, the offset can result in an environmental gain when location, permanency, and equivalency are properly considered and applied to the offset.
Alberta Land Institute – Biodiversity Offsets 101 – This PDF of a an introductory slide presentation lays out the case studies and best practices for offsetting in Alberta. Includes links to further resources to a video of the presentation.
The Alberta Association for Conservation Offsets – The Alberta Association for Conservation Offsets (AACO) is a non-governmental collaboration among a number of diverse entities and interests sharing an interest or expertise in the field of conservation and biodiversity offsets. Their website includes further resources.
Southeast Alberta Conservation Offset Pilot – A conservation offset pilot program led by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) that looked at voluntary, market based approach to address industrial growth impacts on southeast Alberta’s native grasslands by contracting with private landowners to convert marginal cultivated lands to native perennial species.
A Study of Canadian Conservation Offset Programs – Academic paper that evaluates several Canadian and international conservation offset case studies through a framework that includes both biological and economic perspectives.
Did we miss something?
If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!