OKI Develops Innovative Tool to Address Environmental Mitigation

 Cincinnati, Ohio – A nationally acclaimed, innovative environmental mitigation tool developed by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) is already having a positive impact on two local agencies.

The Environmental Mitigation Sustainability Modeler (EMSM) tool could “revolutionize how environmental mitigation is assessed in the OKI region,” said Dr. Margaret Minzner, Ed.D., senior environmental planner at OKI.

“The tool identifies potential mitigation sites for future transportation and development projects,” explained Minzner, who oversaw the tool’s production. “In addition to identifying potential mitigation projects, local conservation partners and local governments are using the new tool to prioritize where their conservation efforts should be focused.”

Developed by OKI’s GIS Department, the online tool is a compilation of geographic-data layers used to create maps. Users select factors relevant to their specific analysis, weigh the importance of each layer, and view a map that presents priority areas, called “hotspots.”

The Boone County Conservation District recently used EMSM to measure bat diversity in the county.

“Knowing what species are present can help to protect and conserve the biodiversity of Boone County,” said Stephanie Spence, a former intern with the conservation district who designed and ran the study. “Knowledge of the presence of specific species can lead to different forest management practices.”

For Spence’s bat research, the Miami University graduate student chose layers that highlighted “areas that contained forests, streams and (that) were near parks or protected areas,” popular habitats of the mammals. Another layer showed which roads were better suited for the mobile phase of her research, which involved attaching bat audio detectors to her car.

Spence added, “Finding an appropriate driving route for my mobile data collection would have been extremely difficult without the EMSM tool.”

Taking Root, a regional tree-promoting collaborative, turned to EMSM to address a growing plight: the lack of trees in many urban neighborhoods. For city dwellers, trees can lower energy use; increase physical activity; and reduce rates of cardiac disease, strokes and asthma, among many other benefits.

Taking Root Board Member Sincerrai Gentry said the tool’s analysis helped her organization win a $10,000 grant from Duke Energy Foundation. The grant will be used to populate tree-deficient communities.

“We utilized (EMSM’s) tree canopy layer, in addition to the EPA data on vulnerable communities with cancer from airborne pollutants,” explained Gentry, a recent University of Cincinnati graduate in environmental engineering. “This allowed us to see what areas of the Cincinnati region require immediate action for tree canopy restoration and aiding in human health.”

The tool’s content and functionality were determined through consultations with local agency partners and environmental mitigation experts from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The idea for OKI’s EMSM was inspired by Boone County Judge Executive Gary Moore, who serves as first vice president on the OKI Board of Directors. During a public meeting, he expressed concern that the OKI region was missing out on compensation required by developers when a project adversely impacts the nearby environment.

Moore was alluding to the concept of mitigation banking, a way to offset the ecological loss of a development project by compensating for the preservation and restoration of a different area. Typically, mitigation banks include wetlands and streams while conservation banks include habitats of endangered species.

“With some of our new development projects here in Boone County, where environmental impacts cannot be mitigated on site, we’ve witnessed mitigation fees being collected and then sent to other regions,” Moore explained. “Having a tool to quickly evaluate and assess appropriate environmental improvements here in our region will allow more of these investments to remain here, mitigating the damage to the impacted watershed and improving our residents’ quality of life.”

Though just recently launched, EMSM is generating interest from developers, conservationists and environmental planners at the national, as well as, the local level. Dr. Minzner is being sought by planning organizations to discuss the tool and its capabilities at national conferences.

“I think the tool’s potential is unlimited,” Minzner said. “Planners and conservationists are seeking ways to address the myriad issues associated with climate change. EMSM can help us make better and more meaningful decisions when it comes to land use, transportation, green space, and energy policy.”

Contact: Jim Pickering,  jpickering@oki.org, (859) 801-2403 mobile