Wild Profits

How Multinationals Are Restoring Habitat AND Saving Money

When Frank Lloyd Wright and his associates were designing the famed Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wisconsin, in the early 1930s, he abruptly halted work on the project to fix a problem. A dam had broken on a pond on his Spring Green, Wisconsin estate. The resulting view outside the window upset him so much that he couldn’t continue on the project until it was fixed. The aesthetic of the pond was necessary for him to be productive. So he bid that all his associates stop working on the Johnson drawings to fix the dam. Although the buildings he designed were ultimately to be virtually windowless, the final interior mimicked a forest with light coming down through a canopy of tree-like pillars.

Wright’s biophilic leanings were decades ahead of his time, but heralded a trend in multinational facility management. Companies are now finding that it’s beneficial to employees and the bottom line to restore corporate lands as wildlife habitats. The phenomenon known as biophilia (literally, love of life), is increasingly being applied to corporate habitat philosophy.

According to Prof. Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University, “a growing numbers of studies found that unthreatening natural environments are effective in eliciting broadly positive shifts in emotional states among unstressed as well as stressed individuals.” This means that natural surroundings such as prairies, meadows, mountains and wetlands can be more comforting to employees—and enhance their productivity. Corporate habitat restorations can also save companies money.

Corporate managers are restoring habitats on their properties in a number of innovative ways. At Dupont’s Asturias, Spain, facility, for example, a natural wetland drainage system was installed instead of a conventional pipe system. According to Bill Walker of Dupont, some $1 million was saved per month based on the costs involved in permitting and installing a conventional system. The project worked so well for Walker and Dupont that the company promoted him and asked him to perform similar work at a Northern Ireland facility. He’s also addressed the European parliament on the subject.

The Dupont project was encouraged and later certified by a Silver Spring, Maryland-based group called the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC). Born out of a discussion of leading environmentalists affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League and the business Roundtable, the WHC is a unique partnership that works with multinationals to restore and improve habitat on their properties.

According to Joyce Kelly , president of the WHC, “you can do what’s right for the environment and it doesn’t cost very much.” Kelly has flown all over the world to inspect sites and consult with corporate managers as varied as attracting endangered species to employee productivity. The WHEC’s certification program provides a third-party independent auditing of a company’s efforts to improve habitat.

The WHC program awards a one-year certification after stringent criteria are met. Companies must document their efforts and allow WHC biologists to inspect the property to monitor habitat management plans and employee education.

If the program meets WHC’s standards, it’s listed in an internal registry and is eligible to win the council’s “Corporate Habitat of the Year” award. Last year, Amoco won for its Copper River (South Carolina) refinery restoration program. In developing and implementing five-and 50-year site management plans, the company improved habitat for white-tail deer, bluebirds, osprey, terns and bats. To improve flora habitat, the company planted more than 3,000 sweetgrass plants and 120,000 longleaf pines. Partnerships were also established with states agencies, utilities, conservation groups and scout troups.

Similar to the experiences of most of the other WHC-certified participants, Amoco’s expenses to restore habitat were offset by”secondary cost savings and/or project income.” For example, the company gained income from replacing non-indigenous trees with native long-leaf pine (critical to the survival of fox squirrels).

Certified programs must resubmit documentation every two years to retain certification.; site visits by WHEC biologists. To date, the WHC has certified more than 320,000 acres of corporate-owned lands, up from 16,000 acres at its inception in 1988. The WHEC is supported by a group of 144 corporate members, contributors and conservation groups.

When a company partners with the WHC, the non-profit group’s biologists review the site being considered and make recommendations on ecosystem-based wildlife management, native plants, endangered species and hands-on programs that employees can run on a continuing basis.

Unlike previous public relations efforts to promote unverified environmental benefits (known as “greenwashing”), the WHC’s program places emphasis on an entire organization’s commitment to education and improvement. “We tell companies from the beginning if they’re in it for greenwashing, they’ll lose,” Kelly notes. Moreover, Kelly notes that employees won’t become involved if the company mounts a superficial effort, adding, “they know the difference between action and rhetoric.”

Companies that restore and improve habitats are reaping a host of corollary benefits. The foremost gain is that they reduce their maintenance costs. Properties restored to prairies, meadows, or wetlands don’t need mowing and fertilization. That cuts grounds maintenance expenses.

But costs savings don’t always materialize. When Sears Roebuck relocated 4,000 employees from its merchandise group from its Sears Tower in downtown Chicago to suburban Hoffman Estates, it nestled its new corporate campus in a prairie surrounded by wetlands. Preserving, restoring and enhancing the native habitat was actually more expensive than planting conventional bluegrass, notes Rick Kotarba, director of building operations for Sears. Seeds for native grasses and forbs were expensive, and prone to dying within one year of planting. Weeding had to be done by hand.

Sears also took a risk that employees wouldn’t like the barren grounds that they first encountered before anything started to grow. The results to date, however, have surprised Sears Management. Not only do the prairie fields from April to October with a variety of colors, some “99 to 100 workers at the facility say it was a good idea since up to 400 to 500 people are walking around at any given time (in warmer months),” Kotarba added.

For example, Delmarva Power & Light Co., a public utility serving the southeastern US, switched from mowing under its power line rights of way to a selective spraying system. Native grasses were allowed to grow unmowed to their three-foot heights, hindering the growth of young trees (that would eventually have to be cut to prevent them from hitting the power lines). As a result, maintenance costs were reduced by one-half. The ecological benefits were a greater diversity of (undisturbed) native flora and fauna.

By focusing on holistic site benefits, corporate landowners realize other less measurable gains. A wetland system, for example, prevents flooding, attracts rare birds and filters pollutants from t

he nitrogen (from fertilizer runoff) into the atmosphere as nitrogen gas.”

The most intangible benefit of corporate wildlife enhancement is improved community relations and employee morale/ productivity. Employee teams often work with community groups such as conservationists or Boy Scouts to set up and maintain the programs. As Amoco noted in its 1993 Environment, Health & Safety report; “employee morale is often improved at industrial locations with habitat management areas.” This has been attributed to the benefits of employee teamwork that develops while managing the properties…”