Setting the New Standard: Driving Change through Conservation Certification

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|September 8, 2015

This is the eighth in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

Regulation is often blamed for creating a “race to the bottom” where fulfilling mandates becomes the only achievement. Recognition programs present an opportunity to turn the race around by using regulation as a floor, creating competition and providing incentives for participants to excel. Good recognition programs drive change.

Since we awarded our first certification 26 years ago, Wildlife Habitat Council has used regulation as its floor. To be recognized, a project has to exceed any pertinent regulatory requirement. This criterion allowed WHC to create a consistent approach from which to operate across multiple regulatory environments and impel participants to exceed expectations.

By creating this framework for implementation and recognition, WHC has driven change across corporate lands since 1989, today counting 827 certified conservation and education programs as evidence of these efforts.

As we prepare to launch our new Conservation Certification program, WHC is seeking to accelerate the pace at which we drive change in two ways. We are valuing conservation actions that have not been part of our standard before, and we are configuring our assessment of projects to allow for consistency in data collection and better reporting.

When we explain how WHC Conservation Certification can drive change through better reporting, we refer to the philosophical question about the unheard tree falling in the woods. With our new program, WHC will not only be able hear the tree falling, we will be able to ascertain the species of the tree, the time and date of the incident, and the extent of the habitat impacted as a result. (Metaphorically of course, as we prefer to see trees growing, not falling.)

To create this standard, WHC broke into units the very thing we value as an integrated whole to create manageable-sized projects for assessment and reporting.

With this new structure, we will be able to join the dots of current and future certifications by requiring applicants to submit through a consistent framework that collects data across 25 possible project units, reporting the acts, the objectives, the people, and the purpose of the project.

In future reports, WHC will be able to count and report on the types of conservation projects within each certified program and enumerate the habitats being improved, the species being managed, and the education and outreach being offered. Applicants will contribute data on their conservation objectives, their actions to meet these objectives, the numbers associated with the projects – acres, hours, people, practices – as well as the alignments with existing conservation plans, connectivity with neighboring projects, and contribution to landscape-level efforts..

What will truly drive change will be WHC’s ability to report these measures company-wide and industry-wide, to help Sustainability Officers, CSR managers and others to use the information for their own internal and external initiatives. WHC will also report across industry sectors to inspire others in that sector to participate and encourage friendly competition between those already on board. With these data reports, WHC will cause an upward shift in standards of land management on corporate lands away from a regulated floor and towards excellence and measurable conservation results.

By valuing conservation actions that have not been part of its standard before, WHC will drive change by recognizing these acts and requiring them to be carried out according to best practices.

One of the new areas of recognition is land preservation. Setting land aside in perpetuity is one of the most effective methods for addressing some of the issues that impact our environment. Land preservation can reconnect landscapes, save critical habitats and species, and provide access for recreation in nature. With Conservation Certification, WHC will recognize actions taken to set land aside permanently or to enter into agreements that allow the land to be used for conservation activities. We will value strategic approaches over opportunistic efforts and look for investments for future stewardship needs.

Another new area of recognition where WHC can drive change is in the practice of green infrastructure. Rain gardens, bioswales, and vegetated roofs and walls all provide high quality environmental mitigation services. With Conservation Certification, WHC will recognize efforts that go beyond the basic service and design biodiversity into engineered solutions. If a rain garden is planted for pollinators as well as to manage stormwater run-off, and a roof is planted for wildlife as well as for heat mitigation, it will be recognized. Through this recognition, designers and engineers can begin to consider how green infrastructure can contribute to biodiversity, especially in urban areas.

When we launch Conservation Certification in November at the Conservation Conference, we will once again drive change in corporate land management through broadened recognition and data-driven reporting.

Setting the New Standard: Aligning Conservation Goals with Existing Priorities

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|August 6, 2015

This is the seventh in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

Last month’s blog post reflected how the world of conservation is awash in theories and stances on what is credible or not. It is also awash in objectives, priorities, plans and approaches. Every entity engaged with nature has a plan with a set of priorities, whether national or regional. Every state and territory in the U.S. has a State Wildlife Action Plan –  a blueprint for securing biodiversity in the future. The EU has a biodiversity strategy for 2020, as do many countries, including Australia, Japan and Kenya. Across the NGO landscape, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) promotes its priority conservation areas, IUCN frames its work around its Red List, and BirdLife International has its Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas. At a more local scale, biodiversity and the ecological health of watersheds, estuaries, sites of significant interest and other natural areas are all addressed with suites of priorities, many supported by science and most with attendant actions.  Many such plans have significant overlap, though none are universally adopted.

These plans highlight priorities, set targets and describe best practices towards meeting conservation goals. The most basic plans are informative only, while the best provide metrics, a clear picture of the desired end state, and a road map for implementation.

When Wildlife Habitat Council embarked on the re-design of its signature certification program and developed the soon-to-be-launched Conservation Certification, it took a different approach to ensure that the participants in its programs were implementing projects that met global conservation goals. Instead of creating more plans and priorities, it chose to align with existing plans and incentivize its participants to create explicit associations with them. We aligned with the wheel without reinventing it.

For WHC this approach makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons.

WHC’s applicants – both members and not – are not conveniently located in a single conservation landscape. They cannot jointly adopt an initiative to recover a specific species, restore a regionally important ecosystem, or even focus on a single biome. To overlay a conservation priority that would have meaning for all possible locations would require that the priority be so general as to be meaningless. Instead, by aligning with existing priorities, WHC’s projects become part of the mosaic of efforts being done to advance landscape-scale conservation across the globe.

Also, having worked at the intersection of nature and business for almost three decades, WHC knows that a corporate conservation goal will only be achieved if the implementation on the ground has local meaning and significance. A narrow and specific goal that brooks no localization and allows for no real innovation will have no ownership and no longevity.  Some of the strongest projects we recognize have deep meaning in their communities. By incentivizing alignments with regionally-appropriate conservation plans, WHC provides for the freedom for practitioners to find goals and priorities that are important to them, thus increasing the likelihood of success both in the near and long terms.

An additional benefit of alignments is the increase in the importance of partnerships. WHC has always valued partnerships with conservation groups that invest in on-the-ground work. By encouraging alignments with these same groups’ priorities, we increase the likelihood of successful, goal-focused partnerships.

Finally, one of the principles we adopted as we designed our new Conservation Certification was accessibility to allow projects of all shapes and sizes to receive recognition and to encourage building of successful projects. By eschewing the development of our own conservation priorities, we secure accessibility for our participants and double down on our mantra that every act of conservation matters.   This approach has been designed into Conservation Certification, and an applicant will be steered towards aligning their efforts from the design phase through project maintenance and monitoring.

Under WHC’s new Conservation Certification, a program being submitted for recognition must meet a number of mandatory requirements, as follows:

  1. Have a stated conservation or education objective
  2. Provide value or benefit to the natural community
  3. Have measured outcomes supported by documentation
  4. Exceed any pertinent regulatory requirements
  5. Be locally appropriate

These criteria introduce the concept of alignments with other conservation plans, as project owners will have to determine what is ecologically appropriate for the location and what objective would be meaningful within that context.  A national conservation strategy, like the President Obama’s Pollinator Health Task Force, will provide a certain level of alignment on a broad scale, while a more local plan will be more specific with direct references to locations, partners and even plant lists. We encourage our participants to seek out the plans that are meaningful to them.

Once the criteria have been met, the applicant will be asked, for each project, to state what initiative they are aligning their goals to and how their actions are supporting them. Incentives, in the form of higher points, will be given to projects designed with explicit alignments and executed to secure them.

By not developing our own priorities but instead aligning with existing ones and leveraging existing efforts, WHC is being efficient in its approach and true to its mission and values.

Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. Hosts Annual Symposium for Environment and Education

By Katie Basiotis, Conservation Specialist|August 5, 2015

For 21 years, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. has sponsored an annual Symposium for Environment and Education, challenging middle school students in partner communities to identify an environmental issue and work towards a solution. The symposium fosters teamwork and helps teachers to incorporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts. It also aligns with the company’s business goals of protecting the environment and promoting sustainability.

Photo courtesy of Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.

Photo courtesy of Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.

Students from approximately 15 schools throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Florida work with their teachers and Wheelabrator employees to identify an environmental issue in their community and research a practical, sustainable solution. Students then engage the local news media, local leaders, and the community to share their results and elicit feedback. The experience culminates in a four-day conference in Baltimore where the teams present their projects.

Wheelabrator Falls Inc., located in Falls Township, PA, sponsored the Morrisville Intermediate/High School students’ participation in the 2015 symposium. The student group, known as the MV Aviators, has participated in two previous symposia. This year they decided to make Morrisville an Audubon-recognized Bird Town. The MV Aviators formed partnerships with the Bucks County Conservation District and the Master Gardeners to organize a community event to promote bird-friendly practices. The event was open to the public and participants built nest boxes and assembled “seed bombs,” which are balls of compressed soil interspersed with seeds. Attendees were encouraged to pledge to use native plants on their property. Wheelabrator Falls Inc. has maintained WHC programs since 2012.

Wheelabrator Gloucester L.P., located in Westville, NJ, helped students from West Deptford Middle School to study the link between storm drains, freshwater mussels, and water health. Students wanted to increase community awareness of the link between water health and keeping streets pollution-free. The students prepared a survey for their peers to take, with specific questions about storm drains and their effect on waterways in general and freshwater mussels in particular. The group stenciled the school’s storm drains with the words “No dumping, drains to waterways” and distributed brochures about storm drains to each homeroom class. A highlight of the project was teaching fourth-graders about pollution and mussels through lessons, interactive games, and mussel dissection. Wheelabrator Gloucester L.P. has maintained WHC programs since 2009.

Setting the New Standard: Enhancing Credibility with Stakeholder Involvement

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|June 22, 2015

This is the sixth in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

Credibility is not an absolute. It cannot be viewed or exist independently. It has to be relative to something or someone–a set of standards, an audience, an individual or an entity. Credibility is hard to establish and measure. It must be earned. It cannot be self-anointed. In the conservation world, credibility is often challenged as NGOs, academics and authors defend their preferred approaches, deploy science to support their own arguments and dismiss efforts that are not in complete agreement with their own.

Take forest management as an example. In the conservation community, the views on how to manage healthy forests are as broad and varied as forest ecosystems themselves. One school of thought insists that the only credible forest management plan is one where no tree is removed for any reason. Another adheres to the principle that forests must be managed within a strict framework of minimally invasive activities, while a third advocates for aggressively managing forests for economic reasons – cutting and planting to meet market demands. While all approaches may be valid given a particular set of circumstances, adherents to one approach tend to perceive adherents to different approaches as lacking in credibility, as either too “green” or not “green” enough.

In the conservation world, credibility is often challenged as NGOs, academics and authors defend their preferred approaches, deploy science to support their own arguments and dismiss efforts that are not in complete agreement with their own.

Witness the disagreement between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the old-guard environmentalists, embodied in a The New Yorker article in May 2014 that was subsequently followed by a chorus of ayes and nays as environmentalists took sides for and against approaches to conservation and prioritization of implementation. This war of words culminated in an open letter to the conservation community signed by 240 co-signatories telling the community to stop arguing and get back to work. Then there was Jonathan Franzen, who, again in The New Yorker, decided that the National Audubon Society was not credible because its message about climate change overshadowed many other threats of more immediate concern to avian species. National Audubon is well aware of these threats and is passionately addressing them. More recently, the newly-convened eco-modernists made a shot across the bow with their argument that the environment be de-coupled from human development processes, resulting in several impassioned responses from others who disagreed and accused them of lacking credibility and being techno-optimists. Old conservationists, new conservationists, rewilding proponents, de-growth advocates, pragmatic ecologists, natural capitalists and eco-modernists all fight for space on the green stage, dismissing and embracing approaches under the moniker of credibility[1].

Credibility and the New Standard

When seeking to design credibility into its new standard, WHC sought to remain outside of the academic debates, putting a distance between itself and the arbiters of “correct” conservation. At the beginning of the design of the new standard for corporate conservation, WHC teased apart different conservation themes. For each theme, it convened a group of experts. These experts have included NGO partners, representatives from government agencies, consultants, academics and, in some cases, our own members. Each expert group was guided through a series of conversations designed to establish a suite of conservation and education objectives, a list of credible approaches to meet these objectives and a set of baseline standards that each project would be required to meet in order to receive WHC recognition. The conservation themes were categorized by habitat, species management, education and awareness and a category that addresses overarching approaches like Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) or Invasive Species. By bringing groups of experts together, WHC did not adopt a single entity’s objectives or priorities but instead encouraged individuals representing diverse points of view to offer suggestions and agree on standards within a pragmatic, not academic, framework.

Credibility within WHC’s new standard will be earned through WHC’s approach to building the standard, but secured only through the verified results of increased biodiversity and habitats being managed and monitored according to best practices that meet global conservation objectives.

This multi-stakeholder approach is fascinating and challenging, though also frustrating at times. It was interesting when a group of well-informed and engaged experts “got it,” and understood both the opportunities and challenges of working in the corporate context, as happened in discussions about invasive species and green infrastructure. When it clicked with a group, ideas and observations came fast and furious. It was challenging, trying to find that sweet spot between accessible and meaningful, and setting the bar high enough for aspiration yet realistic enough to encourage implementation. It was frustrating when conservation partners just did not ”get it,” when they could not move beyond the fact that WHC recognizes conservation on lands leased, owned or operated by corporations. Happily, the frustrations were rare as most partners came to the table understanding the unique opportunities for corporations to be better conservation citizens and supportive of efforts to align their priorities.

Credibility within WHC’s new standard will be earned through WHC’s approach to building the standard, but secured only through the verified results of increased biodiversity and habitats being managed and monitored according to best practices that meet global conservation objectives.

The details of this approach will be discussed in a subsequent post that continues to explore the theme of credibility and how it informed the development of a new standard for corporate conservation.

[1] Author’s note: clicking on any links in this paragraph will lead a reader down a rabbit hole of opinions. The author is not responsible for productivity loss due to this distraction.

Setting the New Standard: Supported Approaches Empower Success

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|May 28, 2015

This is the fifth in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

It is a widely-held belief that a clinical distance must be maintained between the certifier and the certified, that one body should be the keeper of the standard and the other should be the supplicant, seeking to reach the standard through heroic, unsupported efforts. It all sounds very mythical. Imagine Greek gods up on Mount Olympus watching the efforts of mere mortals below attempting to divine the gods’ intentions and meet their capricious requirements. Distance is thought to be an essential criterion for impartiality that is itself critical for credibility.

Certifying bodies world wide take different approaches. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) states that it is committed to being the world’s leading certification program for sustainable wild-capture seafood, but it does not issue certificates or assess fisheries against its own standards. Instead it allows independently accredited bodies to certify adherence to the standards it sets. MSC takes this approach to “maintain impartiality.” The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) takes the same approach, engaging third-party entities to oversee certification of adherence to its standards.

In contrast to MSC and FSC, The Fair Trade Program and USGBC’s LEED program embrace the applicant. Fair Trade’s model is externally audited, but certification is awarded by the standard-setting body. In contrast, LEED uses transparency, clear standards and external reviewers to ensure impartiality, but provides the applicant with the information needed to compile an application—a clear view of how their efforts will be recognized and what extra efforts are needed to achieve certain levels of recognition.

In previous blog posts I talked about why our design of a new standard for corporate conservation embraces scalability and transparency as critical to accessibility and broad adoption. This post sets out an argument that a supported approach is also essential. Bringing the gods down from the mountaintop to interact with the mortals below will aid broad adoption and can be done without compromising credibility. A supported approach is essential for accessibility. It can be protected through the radical transparency designed into the program.

The Global Reporting Initiative’s Learning Services Program issued a Starting Points paper called “GRI Sustainability Reporting: How valuable is the journey?” The paper explores the experiences of organizations of all types and sizes with GRI’s reporting process. It concludes that it is not easy for those reporting for the first time to understand what the GRI sustainability reporting process involves. It also concludes that the journey towards the reporting process is crucial to the final product. Preparing an application or a report towards recognition should not be the goal. Rather, the goal should be creating sustainable projects and processes to support the application and/or report.

Just like GRI, the Wildlife Habitat Council is as interested in the journey towards certification as in the final destination. With our new standard, WHC Conservation Certification, support will be offered at a number of different points along the journey. We believe that conservation and education programs are more sustainable through an approach that considers context, encourages flexibility and embeds efficiencies through actively sharing knowledge and encouraging cross-pollination within and across industry sectors about challenges, innovations and success stories.

At the beginning of the journey, WHC seeks to work with a potential applicant to ensure they are building the strongest possible program. The British Standards Institution developed a “Guidance for Community Sustainable Development” (BS8904). This  guidance could easily have been titled a “Guidance for Sustainable Corporate Conservation” given how close it hews to the decision tool WHC uses to engage the right people, at the right levels, from the right places in successful corporate conservation projects. This tool will be the first support mechanism on the journey to certification.  The WHC decision tool, like BS8904, considers context as a key to success. It involves the following steps: Agreement on a Goal, Engagement of Stakeholders, Definition of Issues, Identification of Resources, Selection of Options, Implementation of Projects, Evaluation of Results, and Learning from the Process.  Through this tool, WHC helps an applicant translate a corporate goal to a site-specific action and helps a corporate CSR professional translate sustainability objectives into meaningful projects.

Throughout the journey, WHC will provide guidance documents for a variety of types of conservation and education projects that an applicant can attempt. Each guidance document will contain information to allow the applicant to prepare a successful and meaningful project and prepare for certification. The guidance documents are not action plans. They do not elucidate the steps required, and adherence to them does not guarantee certification. The guidance will show the applicant what documents, data and descriptions are needed for to apply for Conservation Certification.

As the applicant completes projects and seeks to be recognized under the new standard, they will be supported throughout the application process with an online application tool that presents a series of questions walking an applicant through the activities they have implemented to improve their habitat, better manage wildlife species and educate a variety of audiences. Each applicant will have their own personal journey through the application process that will mirror their approach to project implementation but provide WHC with enough consistency and alignments to allow for effective evaluative reporting.

To ensure impartiality, WHC will separate the program support function from the certification function and govern the system to ensure that the two functions operate independently of on another. The transparency designed into the new Conservation Certification will highlight this separation and show how it is enforced.

WHC seeks to empower employees and others to implement meaningful conservation projects on corporate lands. It seeks to engage CSR professionals, Chief Sustainability Officers and EHS managers in using conservation and education to meet conservation goals that align with larger landscape efforts. Ultimately, it seeks to increase the amount of land being managed towards a conservation goal and the number of people engaged with that goal. In the world of Voluntary Sustainability Standards, WHC wants to empower, not enforce.

A Breakthrough Discovery About White-Nose Syndrome

By Colleen Beaty, Conservation Content Writer|May 12, 2015

Finally, there is some hopeful news in the battle against white-nose syndrome!

Last week a team of researchers from UC San Francisco and Brown University published a ground-breaking study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about white-nose syndrome.

The fuzzy white substance on the muzzle, ears, and wings of these bats are indicative of white-nose syndrome. Source: New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

The fuzzy white substance on the muzzle, ears, and wings of these bats are indicative of white-nose syndrome. Source: New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

This disease, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has devastated cave-dwelling bat populations across eastern North America. It causes bats to prematurely wake from hibernation during the winter – this uses up their limited energy stores and results in starvation.

The researchers discovered that P.destructans releases digestive enzymes that break down bat tissues, and then the fungus imports the break-down products for its food. Of the enzymes identified by the study, the most likely culprit for tissue breakdown was named “Destructin-1.”

The team then attempted to find a way to block this enzyme. They found that a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors, which are currently used to treat HIV/AIDS, appear to also be effective at knocking out Destructin-1. “Protease” refers to enzymes that break down proteins and peptides. Since the fungus releases enzymes that break down bat tissues, inhibiting these enzymes with protease inhibitors or something similar may be an effective way to prevent bat deaths among infected populations.

Specifically, the team tested a protease inhibitor called chymostatin. When tested in a lab setting, using chymostatin resulted in a 77% reduction in tissue breakdown. The team suspects that the remaining tissue breakdown may be caused by other substances excreted by the fungus that do not respond to chymostatin.

Although it’s not clear if the findings will lead to ways to prevent fatalities caused by white-nose syndrome, it is certainly a major breakthrough in understanding how P. destructans works on a biochemical level and will be extremely beneficial in further studies.

In the meantime, the conservation community must continue its efforts to conserve bat populations in other ways, such as by enhancing bat habitat and implementing accepted decontamination protocols to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.

For those in the Great Lakes Region, consider attending the Huron to Erie Habitat Celebration on June 4, 2015 at the GM Milford Proving Ground! The celebration includes several speakers, including Rob Mies of the Organization for Bat Conservation, who will be presenting about bats and bat conservation. Click here to register for the 2015 Huron to Erie Habitat Celebration.

WHC & BGE Host Event for Local Middle Schoolers

By Katie Basiotis, Conservation Specialist|May 8, 2015

The Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) held an event for Patuxent Valley Middle School students in cooperation with Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) on April 8, 2015.  Three WHC employees and 12 BGE employees participated, along with 24 students, three teachers, and two parents.  The Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Stream Challenge Grant supported the event, and the Izaak Walton League of America generously loaned two stream sampling kits.

Groups of 8 students rotated between three stations during the event: Station A was a planting station, Station B was a water quality testing station, and at Station C students performed a macroinvertebrate study.

At Station A, students planted 30 shrubs along the stream, with the help of BGE foresters and WHC staff.  The shrubs planted included native species such as redosier dogwood, serviceberry, winterberry, and sweetspire.  These species were carefully selected to have an expected mature height of less than 20 feet so as not to interfere with the power lines overhead.  Species were also chosen for their value to wildlife.  Students learned the importance of having vegetation along streams to shade and cool the water and help absorb stormwater runoff.


At Station B, students gathered under a tent to learn about ways to test water quality through chemistry.  A pair of students gathered two containers of water from the stream, while the remaining students divided into two teams of three and read the instructions for measuring dissolved oxygen and pH.  The groups found consistent results, with pH measuring between 7 and 8 and dissolved oxygen measuring between 2 and 4 parts per million. After measuring the temperature of the water, the students used a chart to determine the percent saturation of the dissolved oxygen. The groups discussed what these results indicated and potential impacts on water quality that could affect the results.

The macroinvertebrate study at Station C began with a discussion on how to perform a stream study using D-nets and sieves to collect small amounts of stream substrate and sift through the samples to pull out animals. The students were briefed on a few classes of creatures they might find, after which the group discussed the ethics of handling wild animals and how to minimize disturbance as they walked through the stream and along the banks. The students were paired and asked to collect as many macroinvertebrates as possible within the time allowed. The group reconvened to document their findings using the Izaak Walton League’s “Creek Freaks” monitoring logs and identification sheets. The students identified their findings as being either “tolerant” or “sensitive” to pollution, and made observations about the water based on which macroinvertebrates they discovered. Depending on whether the students had just rotated from the planting station or the water quality monitoring station, the group discussed how improving habitat and creating a vegetative buffer might increase stream quality, or compared the findings of the macroinvertebrate study to the chemical water quality findings.

After students had visited each station, they were treated to a pizza lunch provided by BGE.

Soils in All the Colors of the Rainbow

By Colleen Beaty, Conservation Content Writer|April 30, 2015

A rainbow of soil is under our feet; red as a barn and black as a peat. It’s yellow as lemon and white as the snow; bluish gray. So many colors below. Hidden in darkness as thick as the night; the only rainbow that can form without light. Dig you a pit, or bore you a hole, you’ll find enough colors to well rest your soil.
– A Rainbow of Soil Words by F.D. Hole, 1985

In my introductory post about the Year of Soils, I explained how soils are made up of numerous components, both organic and inorganic. But no two soils are created equal!

Soils vary widely around the world. They can be organized, or classified, based on the variations in these organic and inorganic components. There are a number of different classification systems, including the USDA’s Soil Taxonomy system and the FAO’s World Reference Base for Soil Resources. These systems organize soils based on considerations like their overall texture (the proportions of clay, silt, and sand, which form from the slow breakdown of bedrock), their mineral composition, and the thickness and composition of their layers.

Oh yes…layers! Soil isn’t the same all the way down–it is much more complex! Over time, it goes through complicated processes like leaching, the addition and breakdown of organic matter (humus), and the breakdown of bedrock. The result is these layers:

Source: South China Normal University

Source: South China Normal University

Regional variations in temperature, rainfall, etc., as well as the composition of the underlying bedrock, result in dramatic differences in these layers. Including their colors! Here in Maryland, for example, much of our soil is a bright orange-red near the surface, due to a type of clay that holds large amounts of iron. This iron oxidizes (rusts) in the presence of oxygen, resulting in this vivid color.

And just as the living soil ecosystem can influence the plant ecosystem growing above, these non-living characteristics have an impact as well. Different plants prefer different soil conditions, including depth, moisture/drainage, pH, and texture, which is one of the reasons why all of the different soil types around the world support such variable plant communities.

Soil testing can be a great way to learn about your soil’s classification and associated characteristics. You can use this information to figure out what kinds of plants will grow best on your land, and if any amendments are needed to improve growing conditions.

Have you ever had your soil tested? What did you learn about your soil?

WHC Introduces Project WET to MD Teachers

By Katie Basiotis, Conservation Specialist|April 29, 2015


With the help of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MD DNR), the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) recently organized two teacher training workshops that introduced educators in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area to the Project WET Foundation and the organization’s award-winning water resource education materials for grades K-12. On Monday, April 6, Sandy Spring Friends School of Montgomery County, MD hosted the first of these all-day events, which served to familiarize their own staff, as well as other educators in the County, with engaging water-related educational activities that can be used both outdoors and in the classroom. WHC Education Specialist Rebecca Culler worked alongside Cindy Etgen and Martha Shaum of MD DNR to co-facilitate the training and challenged attendees to envision how the lessons contained in the Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide may best be used with their own students.

Participants enjoyed learning through activities such as “Water Crossings,” where teams were asked to construct a vessel able to float an orange for a period of two minutes, using only natural materials they gathered from outside, with bits of yarn to bind the materials. This, and other lessons covered during the training, was effective in challenging both the creative and analytic centers of the brain while incorporating the use of teamwork and communication skills.

Attendees of the second workshop, hosted at Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore, were treated to a similar experience later the same week on Thursday, April 9th. Professional educators and teachers-at-heart each found the event particularly useful, with a few participants inquiring how they themselves may become “facilitators.”

While these workshops represent only a local offering of conservation education resources available across North America, they serve to strengthen links to one’s own community and to build capacity within your own habitat-based program.  Hosting or joining an already planned workshop is usually as easy as contacting your state or province’s natural resource agency or university extension service.

For more information regarding teacher training workshops in your area, please visit the Project WET, Project WILD, and Project Learning Tree websites.

Setting the New Standard: Transparency Matters

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|April 28, 2015

This is the fourth in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

In “Learning Through Disclosure,” an essay in Transparency in Global Environmental Governance, Graeme Auld and Lars Gulbrandsen show how two types of transparency—procedural transparency and outcome transparency—can impact the legitimacy of a recognition program. Procedural transparency focuses on governance and adjudication, providing a window into how a standard has been developed, who had a hand in developing the standard, and how the standard is defended. Outcome transparency shines a light on the activities being recognized. It holds certified entities to their stated practices and performance. When procedural transparency and outcome transparency overlap, an audience can understand the system in place for recognition and monitoring and view the level of compliance, and the standard can be considered legitimate.

There is enormous diversity in Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) across the globe from what the standards seek to recognize to the methods through which they create and evaluate their recognitions. An alphabet soup of standards is applied to forestry, fisheries, agriculture, tourism, recreation, buildings, energy and municipal policies. Some of these standards are government initiatives –the EPA Energy Star program and the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) –others are private concerns developed by industry, civic institutions and academia. Some standards are complex and expensive,  others are simple and direct. Regardless of originating entity, objective, scope or market, the one thing that successful standards share is a commitment to transparency.

In the USA and beyond, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program shares its standards freely and openly to allow anyone to build to LEED standards, whether they seek LEED recognition or not. It also provides potential applicants for certification with a clear picture of how their efforts will score, thus providing a procedural transparency that enhances accessibility, increases uptake of the program and secures the program’s legitimacy. On the other hand, the Director General for Energy, the body that oversees the EU RED, provides information about its program on request only. In addition, RED has unclear assessment criteria, no timeline for recognition, and no clear administrative procedures for post-recognition evaluation. RED is widely perceived as being opaque and unfair.

Currently, WHC provides a measure of procedural and outcome transparency through its website and in its publications. Its members are listed, its governing board is identified and contact details and bios for all staff members are available. All certified programs are listed on the Conservation Registry, with an explanation of each program, its location, its owner, and its conservation and education efforts. Award-winning programs are listed, and details of the certification cycle are provided.

When it launches its new standard later this year, WHC will commit to radical transparency in an effort to adopt the best practices of VSS, in order to provide audiences with full and complete disclosure of procedures and outcomes, and incentivize conservation at the highest possible levels.

WHC will provide clear explanations of its new criteria. For the new standard, WHC developed a suite of Project Guidance documents that form the core content of the certification process, i.e, the objectives and project characteristics needed to reach certain levels of recognition. These documents were developed through a multi-stakeholder process that will be fully explained upon launch of the new standard. The Project Guidance documents then evolved into a series of criteria against which a project will be scored. The scoring is being developed in partnership with The Conservation Fund, and a full report on the scoring model will also be available. To facilitate consistent scoring by reviewers, the criteria have been further developed into a series of questions an applicant will be asked to answer. These questions will be freely available.

WHC will provide a clear explanation of its review process. Along with the publication of the scoring model, WHC will also provide an explanation of how each application is reviewed and the measures instituted to ensure consistency and objectivity across the entire process. Governance of the review process will also be addressed to illustrate how the integrity of the process is protected. The ability of an applicant to communicate with a reviewer will be laid out clearly, and limitations set on such communications will also be elucidated.

WHC will provide a clear explanation of the certified projects and their final scores. Currently, WHC provides descriptions of all its certified programs on the Conservation Registry. This valuable tool allows audiences to see what projects are being done where and by whom. With the new standard, WHC is making a commitment to continue contributing to the Conservation Registry, but also plans to provide more evaluative measures of each program through improved data collection. Final design of this data collection is underway, and it is WHC’s hope that all certified programs will be listed along with their final score, the tier of recognition they have achieved, and the conservation outcomes they are focused on, as well as the associated educational efforts and the results of community and employee engagement.

WHC will provide a clear explanation of governance over the new standard. All NGOs have governance bodies. WHC’s Board of Directors ensures regulatory compliance, strategic clarity and ethical leadership. It does not govern programming or content. It will not govern the new standard. To ensure the new standard is governed appropriately–that change is managed, updates reflect changes in the conservation context and best practices, and stakeholders remain key informants—WHC will convene a steering committee specifically focused on governance of the new standard, made up of conservation and education experts, industry and business representatives and those knowledgeable about standards.

This new standard of certification will allow WHC to further its mission to recognize conservation efforts on private lands and encourage more conservation.By providing procedural and outcome transparency, WHC will achieve its recognition goal in a manner that is meaningful, defensible, and that will inspire others to engage in activities to restore habitats and improve biodiversity, while educating and engaging communities and employees.