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A Drain On The Economy? Ecological Restoration Is A $9.5 Billion Industry

Thank those spotted owls. Rather than hurt jobs, cleaning up the environment actually employs more workers than industries such as logging or mining.

A Drain On The Economy? Ecological Restoration Is A $9.5 Billion Industry
[Photos: USFS Region 5 Flickr]

Think about about all the contaminated sites around the country–the old factories, polluted waterways, disfigured wildernesses. Now think about all the money that must go into fixing these places–what public agencies, foundations and corporations must pay every year in clean-up costs. It adds up to a lot.

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In fact, the “restoration economy” is worth as much as $9.5 billion a year, according to a new estimate by Todd BenDor, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, and four co-researchers.


“The public debate over restoration usually focuses on how many jobs are killed when environmental regulation requires restoration,” says BenDor in an email. “We wanted to know how much economic impact restoration is having. Restoration is an essential part of the green economy, but it’s really hard to measure since it’s hard to even tell who is doing the work.”

Using a series of public databases, the researchers identified companies and organizations doing conservation work, then they surveyed a representative sample. About half the work is done by either companies in “Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services ($3.5 billion) or “Support Activities for Crop Production” ($2.2 billion). In total, these groups employ 126,100 people–more than those working in steel mills, mining, or logging.


The paper is published in the science journal PLoS One. It follows another from May, where the authors estimated restoration produces 33 jobs for every $1 million directly invested, not to mention numerous related jobs. That estimate is based on an analysis of federal and state programs.

The larger point is that we shouldn’t think of restoration as something unproductive. Yes, roping off an area to development reduces its value. But, at the same time, restoration also creates some value. “This is an emerging sector of our economy and involves everything from plant nurseries to earth moving to lawyers to architects,” BenDor says. “Restoration could be considered the greenest part of our economy, and should be accounted for [as economic activity].”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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