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Ecological restoration industry generated $9.6 billion and supported more than 53,000 jobs, according to new UNC study

December 1, 2023 Businessman holding dirt and plant in hands.

A new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently found that the wetland and stream restoration market has a significant impact on the U.S. economy. The study, published in PLOS ONE, estimates the industry annually generates $9.6 billion in economic impact and supports more than 53,000 jobs nationally.

“Our findings suggest that the businesses that restore wetlands and streams – usually in response to impacts from infrastructure and urban development – really do now form a full-blown ‘industry’ in the same way we talk about other industries, like the video game industry or the coal mining industry. More importantly, it’s not just a niche little “cottage” industry anymore – it’s a real sector of our economy that has real impacts on employment and economic output,” said Todd BenDor, Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Community Design in the UNC Institute for the Environment and the Department of City and Regional Planning and Director of UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Sciences.

The study, led by BenDor, sought to better understand the restoration industry and how it has changed over time. The research team employed a national survey of wetland and stream mitigation firms to determine the industry’s economic and employment impacts. The firms were asked to report on restoration activities for 2019 to exclude any anomalies introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team then used that data to show changes in the industry from 2014 to 2019.

In addition to the overall economic output and number of jobs supported, they found that the industry grew 35.2 percent in revenues, 32.6 percent in total economic impacts and had a compound annual growth rate of 5.25 percent, which is on par with other well-established industries in other technical sectors and a higher growth rate than most other industries.

In performing this analysis, the team recommends the government establish more standard industrial classification measures for wetland and stream restoration to improve future tracking. The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is the standard used by the U.S. government to classify industries and share statistical data related to the economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses these codes to report on employment trends.

“We suggest establishing a whole set of NAICS codes that would allow tracking employment in firms engaged in many types of ecological restoration, including for wetland and stream mitigation firms. This is an essential step in generating accurate and consistent employment estimates in the future, particularly at local- and state-level geographic scales.”

The research team is optimistic this work can help establish new NAICS codes to help track the burgeoning mitigation industry and the broader restoration sector.