Posted: June 1, 2008, 12:00 a.m. PDT
Wal-Mart’s venture into the "green” movement has resulted in the conservation of habitat throughout the country, including forestland in California as well as grasslands and wetlands in North and South Dakota. Under the Acres for America program, the retailer intends to offset its land footprint through 2015, acre for acre.
Nearly 400,000 acres have been preserved. That’s triple the goal set in 2005, when the program was launched by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with founding corporate partner Wal-Mart.
The retail giant pledged $35 million over 10 years to the project, declaring a commitment to set aside land to make up for its land use through 2015. Twice a year, NFWF offers a grant program for conservation groups to help acquire lands that meet Acres for America criteria.
More than a dozen criteria affect the selection process, including benefits to birds and other wildlife. Organizations that have received grants include The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund.
To date, The Conservation Fund has received four grants through the program, according to spokeswoman Vanessa Vaughan. The projects include redwood forest protection and management in California; Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership in Maine; Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge Expansion in Lousiana; and Kane Ranch and Two Mile Ranch acquisition in Arizona.
"Wal-Mart has a strong commitment to balancing economic and environmental objectives and has become an innovative leader in the industry by recognizing – and offsetting – its development footprint,” Vaughan said. "Acres for America is a remarkable program that has most recently allowed us to protect the incredible natural resources that are livelihood of North Coast communities, and it could be used as a model for others to implement across the country.”
In 2007, a $1 million grant to Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited Inc. protects more than 8,500 acres in the Prairie Pothole Region of North and South Dakota. Wal-Mart’s $700,000 donation and $300,000 in NFWF federal funds protect 10,785 acres of prairie pothole grasslands and wetlands that serve as home and breeding grounds for 200 species of songbirds, waterfowl, raptors and game birds.
Birds have benefitted greatly from the awards, said Peter Stangel, NFWF’s director of science and evaluation and WildBird Conservation Corner columnist. One of the first projects, and the largest to date, he said, is the Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership in Maine.
Wal-Mart committed $6 million over 10 years to help place a conservation easement on 312,000 acres of forestland in Maine. The deal, completed by the New England Forestry Foundation and the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, creates 342,000 acres of contiguous forests and waterways permanently protected from development, Stangel said.
"An astounding 1,500 miles of river and stream shorelines were protected,” he said, "and the 60 lakes on the property offer 450 miles of shoreline habitat for a wide variety of birds.”
In addition, at least eight active Bald Eagle nests occur on this land, which is estimated to harbor about 10 percent of northern Maine’s nesting Common Loons, he said. These forests also provide habitat for more than 23 species of warblers, and 54,000 acres of wetlands offer nesting sites for the declining American Black Duck.
"This program epitomizes public- private partnerships,” Stangel said. "Wal-Mart established themselves as a leader in environmental programs by voluntarily offsetting their facilities footprint with permanently protected conservation land – a first, as far as we know, for a major retailer.”
While certainly in favor of Wal-Mart’s efforts to conserve wildlife habitat, concern remains about the sites selected for development, said David Willatt, a spokesman for Sierra Club. It’s important to consider a store’s impact on the surrounding environment, he said, before a parking lot is built next to a wetland.
"It’s great to set aside a corresponding acreage elsewhere, but what is the value of the land you’re actually developing?” he said. "The one thing you can say about Wal-Mart is that they definitely have started to understand that their environmental impact is something that people care about, and it might affect whether they shop there.”
A Wal-Mart spokesman was not available to comment.