Ecotone Ecological Services Creates Synergy and Success
Companies large and small, and in just about every industry, make a concerted effort to advertise and market their environmental awareness and ecological measures in the workplace in an effort to “go green.” For some, it’s simply a matter of contributing to the well being of our planet, while others have realized actual business savings in areas such as energy usage, selling recycled materials, etc. Harford County-based Ecotone, Inc., an ecological restoration design-build firm, however, has created a niche business plan that allows it to offer clients a wide range of services – everything from construction to design, restoration, conservation easement purchases, mitigation and more – while improving and preserving Maryland’s natural landscape.
Scott McGill and Jim Morris founded Ecotone in 1998. The two had worked together at two different consulting firms in the 1990s and both had started their own separate businesses. “I was working out of my basement and Jim was working out of a room at the Highlands School … two young guys trying to make it on our own,” says McGill. “We both liked the work but not the business aspects – accounting, marketing, etc. We talked and discovered that if we combined our businesses, we could share the burden.” They named the company Ecotone – “a transitional barrier between two habitat types – the edge of a forest, the edge of a stream – that is where we are. We wanted to keep the name simple and Ecotone is what we are and what we do,” explains Morris, who says they both wanted to stay away from what they see as an overuse of acronyms in company names. “Even Dairy Queen is now ‘DQ,’” notes McGill.
McGill brought his 20-plus years of experience in geomorphology (the scientific study of landforms and the processes that shape them), and his skill in the design of stream, wetland and watershed restoration solutions; Morris, an ecologist, is a recognized expert in wetland assessment, planning and regulatory compliance. But perhaps more importantly, the partnership brought together a shared vision – to create a company that would not solely focus on one area of ecological restoration; instead, Ecotone offers a multi-disciplinary structure that brings together ecologists, landscape architects, restoration designers and construction staff to offer a more streamlined process for clients while reducing costs.
Ecotone operates out of a historic farm in Forest Hill, Md. In the main structure, 20-25 employees work together in a relaxed environment where McGill and Morris’s dogs run free (employees sometimes bring their dogs to work, too). Ecotone takes a measured approach to hiring so as to grow slowly, and Morris notes that they have lost very few employees over the years. “People seem to enjoy working here,” he says. And no wonder. In addition to the work involved, employees are able to work in a physical environment that sports a pond with osprey and geese, and barns have been converted into greenhouses that allow Ecotone to grow their own saplings to be used on future projects. Rich Berkey, construction superintendant and ecological restoration specialist at Ecotone, says that by using plants grown in the company’s own greenhouses, the vegetation installers at Ecotone become invested in the plants that they have helped grow. “It’s very gratifying for them, and since they are familiar with the plant types, the installation is more efficient,” says Berkey, who adds that Ecotone also has created its own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model onsite. “Everyone pitches in to grow our own vegetables, and we produce enough to feed the entire company.”
Sean McDonough, project manager at Ecotone, established and manages the native plant nursery at Ecotone, as well as heading up the planting strategy in support of restoration activities, participating in wetland design, monitoring completed stream and wetland projects, and heading up the bioengineering plant projects. McDonough notes that growing and selecting plants for a stream restoration is unlike most landscaping jobs, due to the varying landscape conditions, river and stream slope patterns, and natural conditions found in wetlands.
McDonough says that there are two primary types of plant growing and cultivation performed at Ecotone. “If we have a current large stream or wetland project confirmed where we know we will be planting there in a year and a half or two years, we will perform ‘contract growing’ for that site. We also have to anticipate what we believe we will use in the future on other sites. Recently, we analyzed what plants we had grown and used over the last six years to look how frequently we used a particular plant and the quantity used,” McDonough says. He adds that he does post-construction monitoring to analyze survival rates for plants used.
McDonough also oversees the bioengineering for stream restoration projects. “Certain plants can be propagated by cutting off the stems, bundling them and then putting them in water to grow new roots. Bioengineering is very important to us as you want a stream to be stable as quickly as possible,” he says, explaining that new live cuttings are planted in stream banks with two-thirds being planted in the bank, and the remaining one-third above the bank.
This diverse offering of services is what makes Ecotone stand out. “In the Baltimore area, we are the only firm with a significant design team and construction team, and when you throw on top of that the ecosystem credit, easement and property acquisition work we do, we are very unique. Some companies focus just on construction, while others do design or ecosystem credits. We connect all three,” says McGill. When asked why they decided to tackle all three business segments, Morris replies with a laugh, “No one told us we couldn’t do it. I guess we were the only ones dumb enough to try to do all three, but we have been very blessed with our success.”
This diverse offering of services allows Ecotone to not only offer an “all under one roof” approach to clients, but also prioritize one element over others to be in concert with shifts in the local economy. “When the construction business got slow, we started buying construction equipment, as there was a fire sale with all the construction firms going out of business. Then, we had to adapt to the changing conditions and refocus our efforts into other areas until the construction business rebounded,” says McGill. Morris adds, “Being diverse is a good thing during a recession.”
“One of the tricks when you have diversity of services is to figure out where you are making your money and where you are not. One of the challenges we always face is to know what sectors are succeeding and what ones are struggling,” McGill says. But having three silos of revenue also presents opportunities. “Over the years we’ve used the ecosystem credits sector to buy equipment for the construction division, and then turn around and used that equipment on projects involving ecosystem credits. We’ve had projects where we acquire a property for easements, ecosystem credits or mitigation, and use our own construction equipment and design services on that property. It’s the ability to bundle those services into one package that has helped us succeed,” says Morris. It’s this synergy between the three areas that has allowed Ecotone to grow its business and become an in-demand firm.
Unique Design/Build Model
Ecotone’s ability to offer both design and construction services is unique in the industry. On the design side, environmental scientists, biologists and landscape architects work hand in hand with the construction management team to restore wetlands, streams, forests and wildlife habitat.
McDonough says that the cross-training Ecotone conducts for its staff helps everyone do his or her job more effectively and reduces mistakes. “If I am designing a stream bank, I keep in mind the issues that will impact the construction team. Having rapport with your team members eliminates anything getting lost in translation. And, if someone from construction, for example, is out sick, I can help out because I have that knowledge base.”
This unique model, along with the hands-on approach by McGill and Morris, is what attracted Kevin M. Smith, chief of habitat restoration and conservation at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, to work with Ecotone. Smith, who worked with McGill and Morris before they launched Ecotone and has worked with them for over 15 years, says that “since I am very familiar with the work that they have done and quality of work that they do, we invite them to bid on many of our restoration projects. Quite simply, they provide a great product for a reasonable cost. Plus, they are easy to work with … very accommodating and reasonable.” Smith says that he has worked with Ecotone on over 10 projects, including the Little Blackwater Restoration Project in Dorchester County where Ecotone provided design and construction services for a 235-acre wetland and riparian restoration project along the Little Blackwater River. Smith also highlights the Harford County Water Quality Improvement Project that began this year and is still ongoing. “They are providing design and construction for stream, riparian and wetland enhancements mostly on agricultural lands within the Deer Creek watershed in Harford County in conjunction with the Harford Soil Conservation District,” he notes.
Ecotone also has partnered with Harford County Government on a variety of construction projects. “Over 10 years ago, Jim Morris approached the County to discuss the growing need for watershed restoration and Ecotone’s approach to restoration and potential partnerships,” says Christine Buckley, environmental engineer at Harford County Public Works. “As a government agency, we are required to select contractors based on lowest bid. We are extremely pleased when Ecotone is the lowest bid, because we know that Ecotone is an experienced environmental contractor that is familiar with the complexities of restoration and capable of overcoming those obstacles.” Harford County Public Works worked with Ecotone on the restoration of Plumtree Run, a 1,650-acre watershed area that originates within the Town of Bel Air, to reduce bank erosion, provide better floodplain access and improve the habitat quality of the riparian buffer. The department also hired Ecotone for the restoration of the Foster Branch of the Gunpowder River at Trimble Road this year.
Completing cost-effective and sustainable projects for clients is at the heart of what Ecotone strives to do. Berkey, who has overseen the construction of 22 large stream restoration projects, 11 wetland creation sites and two major fish passage projects, says that one of the basic ways that Ecotone keeps costs down is to use what is already in place at the site. “We deal with rock and log structures in almost every site. If there are logs already there, how can we re-use them effectively? Instead of going to a quarry, we aim to re-use streambed material that is already there,” Berkey says. Berkey adds that Ecotone stresses the concept of vertical integration – an economics principle where the supply chain of a company is owned by that company. “If we have materials that need to be removed from a site, we look for ways to re-purpose those materials in another project.” Utilizing Ecotone’s onsite greenhouses and the practice of bioengineering also helps keep costs down, and Berkey says that using sod for stream stabilization eliminates the matting often used that is shipped in from Indonesia.
A Pioneering Program
One of the more innovative programs Ecotone incorporated into its business was to purchase large parcels of land in need of restoration and then utilize the properties for its mitigation credit and environmental bank programs. The Maryland Forest Conservation Act was enacted in 1991 to “minimize the loss of Maryland’s forest resources during land development by making the identification and protection of forests and other sensitive areas an integral part of the site planning process. Of primary interest are areas adjacent to streams or wetlands, those on steep or erodible soils, or those within or adjacent to large contiguous blocks of forest or wildlife corridors,” according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ website. The DNR notes that during its 15 years, the FCA, which is administered at the local county level, “has been responsible for the review of 199,925 acres of forest on projects scheduled for development. Of those, 120,638 acres were retained, 71,885 acres were cleared and 21,461 acres were planted with new forest. In other words, at least twice as many acres were protected or planted as were cleared,” according to the DNR website.
For example, if a developer needs to clear trees in order to build a commercial project, the developer needs to offset that loss of trees with the planting of new trees so that there is no net loss of forestation. This is where Ecotone comes in. “So if a developer, say, needs to plant three acres of trees for offset and their property is already forested or there is no room, they still need to fulfill those three acres of forestation required by law. So what we do is provide the land to plant those trees. It’s a win for the developer with the obligation, a win for the county because otherwise they are giving landowners a requirement that there is no way to fulfill, and the environment wins because a quality site is improved. It’s a financial win for us, of course, and a development is allowed to go forward, which helps the economy,” says Morris.
However, it’s not just developers who can utilize Ecotone’s mitigation credit program. Jodi Knowles, wetland program manager, Aberdeen Proving Ground Garrison, Directorate of Public Works, Environmental Division, has worked with Ecotone for three years due to the company’s technical expertise and availability to provide off-site wetland mitigation. Knowles notes that in 2011 and 2012, two projects were mitigated for at the Wilkerson Mitigation Site, a site created by Ecotone in 2007 as a consolidated user site for off-site compensatory mitigation needs in the Gunpowder River watershed, and in 2012, six projects were mitigated for at Miller Lane Mitigation Site, located in Parkton, Md.
Of course, in order to provide this opportunity for mitigation, Ecotone has had to acquire large parcels of land and has purchased over 300 acres in the Central Maryland area. In 2004, Ecotone bought a 100-acre farm on Bee Tree Run in northern Baltimore County. “It’s the last farm on the Maryland side of the NCR Trail,” says McGill. “We made a leap of faith that it would work. We ensured that it would be approved for the forestry credit program before we bought it. We donated the development rights to the Land Preservation Trust, as it deserved to be protected with its rolling hills and one of the most productive trout streams in Maryland.” Ecotone rented out the farmhouse on the property and has utilized the land for the mitigation credit program. Adding 50 acres of new forest, Ecotone connected several adjacent forested parcels to provide contiguous forest habitat, and an emergent wetland was preserved for potential habitat for the bog turtle.
In 2010, when Baltimore Gas & Electric needed forest and wetland mitigation credits for its Northwest Substation Project, it contacted Ecotone after being recommended to do so by the Maryland Department of the Environment, according to Greg Kappler, principal environmental scientist at BGE. “I spoke on the phone with Jim Morris and was impressed with his professionalism, knowledge of the regulatory requirements and his easygoing personality,” says Kappler. For this project, several sites were used to comply with the mitigation requirements, including Bee Tree Run for reforestation. Kappler notes that other projects have included wetland mitigation for the Joppatowne Substation, forest retention credit purchase for BGE’s White Marsh Training Center, and Critical Area tidal wetland construction at BGE’s Riverside site. Completing jobs for BGE ranging from forest mitigation to wetland construction illustrates Ecotone’s diverse services.
Of course, acquiring land for mitigation is a significant investment for the company. “Balancing your inventory is important – there is an upfront cost of acquiring the land and you don’t want to have 15 years of inventory,” says McGill. “In Baltimore County, we thought we were set for a few years and then one client called and needed 22 acres all at once.”
Mike Caruthers, president of Somerset Construction in Bethesda, Md., who has worked with Ecotone for seven years on a variety of projects after being introduced by Somerset’s engineer, hired Ecotone for the wetland mitigation needed for the Baltimore Crossroads project, a 1,000-acre master-planned, mixed-use community located along Route 43 in the White Marsh area of Baltimore County that incorporates office, flex and retail, plus new and planned residential units. Ecotone provided offsite wetland mitigation totaling 18.54 acres at two separate restoration sites located in Baltimore County’s Long Green Valley, according to Morris. Somerset Construction also employed Ecotone on another large-scale project involving wetland and stream mitigation and onsite stream restoration – Arundel Preserve, a 268-acre, mixed-use community in Anne Arundel County.
In addition, Ecotone offers property for sale on its website, including Bee Tree Farm in Parkton, Wooly Bugger Farm in Hereford, and Maplewood Farms in Glenwood, Md.
Partnering with Private Landowners
In addition to purchasing land for mitigation credits, Ecotone has also worked with private landowners in a unique program that allows the landowners to have their property improved with little or no out-of-pocket expenses, thanks to conservation easement payments or through grant funds obtained by Ecotone.
|What Is Mitigation?
When authorizations are issued for activities that will cause unavoidable losses of non-tidal wetlands, the losses must be countered with wetland gains to meet the “no net loss” goal. The primary means of accomplishing wetland gains is through wetland mitigation – the creation, restoration or enhancement of non-tidal wetlands to compensate for non-tidal wetlands that were or will be lost due to regulated activities or non-exempt agricultural activities.
So how does it work?
If a landowner has a stream, trout habitat, wetland habitat or woodlands, for example, that is in need of restoration, Ecotone can not only handle the design, construction and restoration services but also offer conservation easement payments on restored acreage while the landowner retains full ownership and use of the property. McGill explains that Ecotone uses county data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to identify potential landowners who could benefit from the program. “Sometimes they are interested due to the financial incentives, they want to be good environmental stewards, they want their stream to be able to be used for fishing, or they want the wetland to have a diverse habitat,” McGill says. “Hopefully these landowners are also ones who we can provide some ecological uplift – replanting a stream valley, wetland restoration project in a flood plain, stabilizing a stream bank, etc.”
McGill adds that mitigation credits typically only work if the land is close to nearby development sites that need mitigation offset. “If it’s not a good fit, we will contact the Maryland Department of the Environment, Department of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, and try to access grant monies to allow the project to move forward,” he says.
McGill and Morris say that one of the unique – and financially beneficial – aspects of their industry is the continually changing legislation, permitting and regulations that affect homeowners and businesses. “For example, the stormwater fee legislation that recently passed – counties are starting to get programs in place, and they are expected by the state and the EPA to deal with impervious runoff. A lot of that work is restoring stormwater ponds … whether you agree with the program or not, we are an environmental company, so we are being asked to bid on certain projects,” says McGill. Morris adds that there are also limits on Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) – nutrient and sentiment pollutants in a given water body such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. “It’s an evolving program with the counties, State Highway Administration and developers all sharing the burden,” he says.
Sounds like the self-described “two young guys trying to make it on our own” are going to be busy for years to come. I95