Iron heron sculptures stand by the Los Angeles River--a concrete-lined waterway proposed for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Fake herons stand by the concrete-lined Los Angeles River–a candidate for restoration to its natural state. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Not long ago in the New Jersey Meadowlands, a private company took a 235-acre chunk out of an existing 587-acre protected area and turned it into a “mitigation bank.” The company running the deal paid $6 million for a lease and $25 million for restoration work, altogether about $132,000 an acre. The work involved removing tall, dense stands of phragmites (an invasive grass), knocking down berms along the Hackensack River, cleaning up contaminated soil, and replanting with native species. The idea was to create a bank of mitigation credits for sale at a profit to developers wanting to fill wetlands elsewhere.

The project did not create a single new acre of wetlands. While it did restore stands of spartina grass and other native species, says Erik Kiviat, an ecologist with the conservation nonprofit Hudsonia Ltd., the restoration effort also turned the habitat of a rare plant into an equipment parking lot, killed the last remnant of bluejoint grass wet meadow in the region, and destroyed what had been the state’s only known habitat for a globally rare invertebrate, Mattox’s clam shrimp. Moreover, the mitigation credits for this work require the company to monitor the restored acreage for just 15 years. After that, almost anything can happen. But the wetlands being filled thanks to mitigation credits will remain filled forever.

In the public imagination, there’s always been something tantalizing about the idea that we can restore trashed ecosystems, or—as Joni Mitchell never put it—take a parking lot and put up paradise. But the reality is that too often, ecological restoration projects

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