Speak Up Early in the Process
There is almost always a tight timeline for environmental mitigation landscape for a project, even when the need for landscape work is known years in advance. It is something left to the last minute. It is the last item on the checklist. I wonder if most people focus their attention and efforts on the hardscape construction because the majority of the budget is being used for structural features. Maybe it’s because the primary goal of most projects is building infrastructure, and the mitigation part is just an annoying requirement. In team meetings, there is a deliberate effort to not appear too environmentally centered for fear of seeming frivolous. For road construction projects, the roadside landscape is certainly a second-class concern on the schedule.
It isn’t fair, but attitudes are not going to change any time soon. That is why environmental commitments have been written into law—to require agencies and construction companies to do the right thing. There was neglect and abuse before the laws were passed. The laws indicate the intent of the populace. It is clear the public wants construction to be responsible and considerate. They want stable soils that don’t wash into streams. They want protection of estuaries and marshes. They want pollutants reduced and contained. They want fresh air and clean water, even if it means slowing down important construction and infrastructure projects. If you are using taxpayer funding for your project, you have been given a stewardship mandate that must be integral to the project’s development.
Knowing this, the best way to ensure good progress for the project as a whole is to run designs past a landscape architect that specializes in mitigation planting very early in the concept phase of the project, before negotiation with the EPA. Include agency reviewers in your meetings. This is not something to toss down to the new employee to figure out. You need to seek out experienced planting specialists to get a cursory review and advice on direction for your mitigation plans. This will result in efficiencies later. It steers you away from crisis scheduling, last minute project stalls, bad designs, and impractical specifications.
You can find more information about trees in The Advanced Guide to Environmental Mitigation Planting: Healing Disturbed SItes, part of The Advanced Guide series.
A scope of services which includes mitigation planting design should be located in the job task order. It needs to include a provision for designing vegetative plans, with the responsibility clearly designated. The responsiblility might fall to the civil engineering firm that is designing the infrastructure, without any experience in this type of work, so they need to understand before bidding that they must hire a sub for the vegetative design. The responsibility might fall to the environmental technical experts who are capable of detailed ecological survey work, but who have no practical vegetative plan design experience. They need to understand the need and budget for hiring a landscape architect with mitigation experience to cover the design work. If the scope of services includes mitigation vegetative design responsibility up front, then bids for environmental services and plan design will include the extra cost. If it isn’t spelled out in writing, your project will be scrambling for guidance after the initial surveys indicate the need for mitigation planting.
On large infrastructure projects with huge teams of experts, when the omission is discovered, there are excuses like, “Our firm is a guider, not the designer.” Or, “We don’t have a landscape architect in our firm. The environmental consultant should be handling this.” Everybody points to others with assumptions of who was supposed to be in charge of mitigation plans, and suddenly, there is a need for more money to cover the surprise costs. If the budget can’t be increased, then project managers try to make due with copies of old mitigation plan sheet templates that will not work for the unique site. EPA reviewers reject the unworkable designs, and there are delays in plan development so revisions can be done. Time-consuming supplemental agreements are implemented. When the contractor is out in the field, he will balk at the unworkable plans, and demand more money and time. The essential maintenance and time for monitoring for success will be omitted altogether, in order to keep the project on track. It is no surprise these types of projects end up failing. Wow! It would have been so much easier to get input from a knowledgeable landscape architect for a couple of hours during the development of the project concept!
If you are a project manager, part of the initial concept stakeholders, or if you plan to bid on an environmental mitigation contract, you have to speak up and ask, “Is the responsibility for vegetative plans spelled out in the scope of services for the task order?” If you are told it is impossible to define the need until after the ecological survey has been completed, then you need to push for it to be clearly assigned anyway. If there are streams or wetlands or marshes in the area of the construction, you can be sure mitigation will be required. It is a simple and quick process to look at a detailed map to determine the likelihood of a mitigation requirement later.
If your firm is pre-certified to do construction design for state transportation agencies, then you are probably involved in some multi-million dollar contracts. This justifies the need to have at least one landscape architect on board full time to train and become your vegetative mitigation planting plan expert.
If vegetative plan design is not required in the scope of services, the environmental consultant firm will only survey for mitigation needs, without the needed design plans. They will survey after they are awarded the environmental services contract, but their bid will include estimated hours for design if the requirement is not written into the task order. If the responsibility falls back on the transportation agency, you may end up with a blue indigo snake expert drawing vegetative plans, or a CAD expert who has never stepped outside for the past three years designing a stream buffer planting. The agency will toss the plan designs to anyone who is available in the next cubicle, or they will do a last-minute hire of a landscape architecture firm that may have experience in only ornamental landscape work.
The environmental estimate for the commitments may include several million dollars budgeted for the amount of permanent impact resulting from a construction project, without including funds for vegetative plan design, installation, monitoring, and maintenance. Be sure responsibilities are written into the scope of services so you don’t have project delays resulting from non-compliance. Speak up and asks why it is missing if you are invited to bid on a task order. Ask the project manager to include compliance and mitigation design responsibilities envisioned to be provided by contractors and consultants. They will include requirements for environmental compliance and permitting, of course. But ask them also to include site reconnaissance, mitigation vegetative plan design, monitoring, and enforcement of installed projects as part of the scope. Large, tax-funded infrastructure projects are politically charged, so avoid delays by thinking about this often-overlooked part of dealing with the impact.