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Chicago 2023 Conservation Finance Roundtable Recap

Chicago Park 1

Eighty-five practitioners from across the United States came to Chicago in April, 2023 to attend the Conservation Finance Network roundtable. The two-day meeting was full of presentations on innovative projects taking place at multiple scales, in different geographies, and led by nonprofit, public, and private entities.

The roundtable featured a keynote from Brian Van Stippen, Program Director at the National Indian Carbon Coalition, who described how proceeds from the sale of carbon credits on tribal land are enabling rematriation of land and funding tribal land stewardship practices. He described ongoing carbon projects in specific places, as well as the overall work of the National Indian Carbon Coalition to support carbon project development that centers tribal interests. 

Forty-six presenters shared project updates ranging from a new regenerative grazing initiative in Kansas to creative uses of clean water state revolving loan funds to the role green banks could play in conservation finance. This article summarizes overall themes from the meeting and takeaways from a few sessions. We encourage you to review the meeting agenda and notes for additional information.

Public funding is playing a catalyzing role in the field of conservation finance. Many sessions throughout the two days touched on the recent influx of public funds to support conservation outcomes. One practitioner noted how the “world has changed” with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Shovel-ready projects are finally getting the funding they need to go forward. 

Many of these public funds are facilitating new types of partnerships and collaborations. A session on the Climate Smart Commodities grant program described how this program has fostered new partnership opportunities to advance climate smart agriculture and forestry projects. These funds have brought new partners together to design projects that provide the resources they and the farmers, forestland owners, and other constituencies they serve need to advance climate-smart outcomes. For instance, the Intertribal Agriculture Council is involved in multiple Climate Smart Commodity projects, and Tomie Peterson, Regenerative Economies Director at the Intertribal Agriculture Council, shared how excited she is to have resources to help tribal agricultural producers in accessing new markets and capital.

Andi Colnes, Deputy Director and Climate Fellow at the New England Forestry Foundation, described part of the value of their Climate Smart Commodity grant project as a “proof of market.” Their project aims to incentivize New England forest landowners to improve forest health and increase carbon storage, while expanding markets for sustainable forest products. They are trying to put forward a credible case to public and private funders that nature-based financing mechanisms work. This grant will help them implement projects and track their impact in order to develop measurable, reportable, and verifiable carbon accounting methodologies. Forests grow on decades-long rather than year-long cycles, and it will take time to measure the impact of changes in management practices. However, NEFF anticipates using this 5-year Climate Smart Commodity grant to build initial systems and relationships as groundwork which will continue far into the future. Andi said this project is just the start. “We are getting $30 million. We need $3 billion to leverage all the carbon potential in New England,” she said. 

In a session on federal agency updates, panelists from the U.S. Forest Service’s Cooperative Forestry Program, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Department of Defense’s REPI program described how the IRA and BIL add new funds to existing programs, and create new programs. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program received an additional $700 million to promote three new priority areas: large landscape projects (projects that exceed traditional Forest Legacy funding program caps); strategic small-tract projects (to protect small inholdings or small acreage, priority parcels); and Tribal and state partnership projects (to encourage collaborative conservation projects to protect forestland important to tribal nations).

These funds also include important provisions to ensure their benefits accrue to communities that have been underserved. Many IRA and BIL-funded programs require that 40% of funds be spent in environmental justice communities. Increasing the flexibility of some of these funding programs, such as by waiving match requirements, also ensures these funds will be able to be spent in communities across the United States that have historically had trouble accessing federal funds.

Federal agencies are writing rules for some of these new funding sources, and will send out funding notices for many programs in the coming months. Federal staffers also encouraged practitioners to develop relationships with the state- and federal-level program staff that administer individual funding programs to explore potential funds to see if they are a good fit.

We need to measure success in a way that captures the full impact of projects. Bre Plier, Manager of Sustainability at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Nicole Chavas, President and Co-Founder of Greenprint Capital Partners, described their Fresh Coast Green Communities project as part of a panel on financing natural infrastructure. The two organizations are working together to develop green infrastructure to manage stormwater across the district. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has long managed stormwater by, in Bre’s words, putting “green infrastructure into our grey infrastructure backbone.” They have preserved land in the upper reaches of the district’s watersheds to slow, sink, and store rainfall, reducing downstream flooding. They have a land conservation line item in their annual budget, because they know that protecting open space is one of the most cost-efficient methods of stormwater infiltration.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District put out an RFP to achieve 6-8 million gallons of stormwater storage through green infrastructure. Greenprint was selected because of their expertise doing green infrastructure planning, design, and construction with a strong equity focus. Greenprint seeks to ensure that the types of green infrastructure that they install “result in benefits for all.” They prioritize infrastructure investments where benefits accrue to communities that are on the front lines of climate change and have suffered historically from disinvestment. However, it takes time, resources, and creative thinking to do this. Greenprint is committed to installing 50% of their infrastructure in areas with a high social vulnerability index.

“We need everybody to participate” to absorb stormwater, said Nicole. Green stormwater infrastructure like swales and rain gardens can be challenging to implement at scale because it is distributed, on public and private property, and crosses multiple municipalities. Because they are engaging with the community to understand what types of green stormwater infrastructure they want, they believe their investments will be more cost effective over the long-term. They have seen from prior projects how community support translates into stewardship, protection, and maintenance of green infrastructure. 

Because green, unlike grey,  infrastructure is not centralized but instead often distributed across a community, its impact and carrying costs can be challenging to track. Greenprint and the Milwaukee Sewerage district have worked together to develop metrics that satisfy both parties’ priorities while also capturing the overall value of the investments. Because their infrastructure is distributed, they are tracking and being paid for stormwater mitigation outcomes on a whole portfolio level, rather than on a per-site basis. This gives them more flexibility to manage their portfolio and implement different types of projects that satisfy community interests and store stormwater at the same time. Greenprint believes that green stormwater infrastructure can prioritize lasting environmental outcomes and equity, and be far higher in impact as a result. In the future, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District hopes to find ways to access new forms of capital to scale their investment in green stormwater infrastructure such as state clean water revolving loan funds.

Each of the projects discussed at the Roundtable is trying to expand the ways we can pay for and value conservation, and its ecological and social impacts.  To do so is likely to require changes in how we value the things we care about. As one attendee commented, “Although we are all living in our own bubbles and using our own metrics to make the case for nature-based solutions or green infrastructure, we are all talking about systems change.”  

The best projects, especially those with triple bottom line impacts, take time to develop. Though it is exciting that there is an influx of federal and corporate funding available right now to support on-the-ground projects, it also takes a lot of work to develop a pipeline of projects. Nicole Chavas described how she has been a member of and presented to the CFN community for a long time. Greenprint has refined their model along the way through sessions like the dolphin tank (where participants present project ideas for feedback). She was excited to be able to announce Fresh Coast Green Communities as a large-scale project that is poised to achieve their goal of equitable, community-driven engagement to implement lasting green infrastructure. The aforementioned NEFF project is building on relationships they have been developing for over a decade. Many of the other projects that were presented at the Roundtable have a similar arc and incubation period. For instance, it took Blue Forest Conservation almost a decade of planning and research before recently launching its successful Forest Resilience Bond in 2023. 

Partnerships are powerful, and we can’t yet know their value. The examples described above are just some of many innovative projects discussed at the Roundtable. Practitioners from across the country are using public funding, philanthropy, and private financing, coupled with hard work, policy engagement, and exceptional creativity, to develop projects that use new sources of capital to ensure positive environmental and social outcomes. But perhaps the biggest value of the Roundtable was the relationships developed and conversations that are yet to be had. Exciting new projects are likely to emerge, and we look forward to sharing them with you.