Since its humble beginnings in 1975 processing prairie seed in an old dairy barn, Applied Ecological Services (AES) has blossomed into a diversifıed company, carrying on its commitment to science-based ecological restoration and land stewardship. Founder and owner Steve Apfelbaum began this endeavor as a way of putting into practice Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” Today, more than 100 highly-trained ecologists, botanists, wetland scientists, landscape architects, planners, engineers and others focus on ecological consulting and restoration design services, environmental permitting services, contracting services and managing nurseries that provide seed and plant materials for over 700 projects annually.
With annual revenues in excess of $12 million, AES leads the nation in the restoration of native prairies, wetlands, savannas, woodlands, lakeshores and stream corridors. Earning widespread accolades for their nature-inspired solutions to some of the most troubled and ecologically degraded places on Earth, AES consistently proves that what’s good for the environment also saves money and improves the quality of life for all of a community’s residents—including the flora and fauna.
AES makes winning international design competitions seem easy. But it’s AES’s broad base of international experience, solid depth of knowledge of regional issues and multidisciplinary consulting team that makes the company a good fıt for their equally diverse clients—which include federal, state and local governments and agencies, foundations, colleges, religious organizations and corporations. AES has restoration nurseries in Minnesota and Kansas and offıces in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The redevelopment of the Hank Aaron Trail in Milwaukee’s Menominee River Valley is one example of their work. One section of the river was lined with rail yards, landfılls, brickyards and steel pylons. AES looked at the situation and developed a plan that would use nature as an investment tool for the redevelopment. “Our team took a place that was no place for people or nature and turned it into 1,200 acres of urban renewal,” beams Steve, who could easily don the title of Father Nature. “Now the brownfıelds have transformed into parks for recreation, habitat for fısh and birds and restored wetlands for storm water management. We have helped naturalize that stretch of river, reconnecting it to flood plains and creating a nature-inspired plan for flood water management.”
This Milwaukee project is among hundreds of similar projects, most in the United States. On Petty Island—an industrial brownfıeld with toxic waste sites on the Delaware River in Pennsauken, New Jersey—AES implemented a four-pronged approach: restoration—bringing back healthy ecological systems; remediation—cleaning up contaminated and toxic areas; redevelopment—integrating land development within the naturally occurring ecological context; and reclamation—stabilizing and reestablishing plant cover to disturbed areas.
“We’re different than many other companies in that we’re science based,” says Steve, who is trained as an ecologist and is the author of the upcoming book, Nature’s Second Chance. “We study how historical ecosystems manage rain precipitation, for example, and learn how to emulate nature to manage storm water in urban areas.” He continues, “We’ve learned how to save developers as much as 15 to 60 percent of development costs—amounting to tens of millions of dollars on their projects. We do this by eliminating the need for underground storm sewers by using, instead, native landscapes, restored prairie, wetlands and forests.” Often, the nature-inspired approach to solving problems offers a marketing opportunity to developers and regulators as well.
Another fast-growing fıeld where AES leads is conservation development, focusing on urban residential and commercial uses of degraded agricultural or industrial lands. “Conservation development is about the consolidation of human settlement,” explains Steve. “They’re places where there are equal or greater numbers of people living on increasingly smaller acres.” The now-famous Prairie Crossing, located in Grayslake, Illinois, is one such example. It devotes 30 percent of its 670 acres—formerly in commodity crops of corn and soybeans—to residential and commercial developments with the remaining 70 percent restored to native prairie, wetlands, woodlands and the like. Besides living in energy effıcient homes, residents have access to locally grown food and renewable energy generated on site, with hundreds of acres set aside for nature’s sake and recreational opportunities.
As a complement to its science-based approach to nature restoration, ecological economics predominate in AES endeavors. “Native landscapes are less expensive to maintain than formal landscapes and lawns,” explains Steve. “Maintenance of a formal lawn at a corporate headquarters in Milwaukee or Chicago can cost as much as $1,000 to $2,000 a year per acre. But maintaining that same land in a prairie and wetland costs as little as $50 to $200 per year per acre. Installing sod on a new site costs as much as $14,000 an acre whereas prairie costs $1,500 to $4,000 an acre.” Prairie plantings save money for the companies, universities and municipalities willing to change their approach to landscaping. These plantings also provide recreational and ecological benefıts, which include managing storm water runoff and improved water quality.
In partnership with other companies and U.S. agencies, AES helped spawn the 1993 wetland bank legislation. This legislation created the means by which wetland restoration could be consolidated into large wetland projects that would be more ecologically sustainable and viable. When wetlands are lost to a proposed construction project, companies, organizations or municipalities can buy credits through larger wetland restoration projects off-site. These off-site wetland projects tend to be more cost-effective for the developers while also more ecologically sound from the perspective of accomplishing actual ecological goals related to wildlife management and water quality.
“When we fırst started helping draft the wetland bank legislation in the 1980s, we found that the wetlands that developers re-established on-site as compensation for lost wetlands often ended up being little more than a detention pond for their parking lots,” says Steve. After the legislation was in place, AES and Land and Water Resources, Inc. partnered to design and construct the Otter Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank in St. Charles, Illinois—the fırst private wetland bank in the United States—into which developers could buy credits in an off-site project. “Suddenly, the scale of the project became ecologically signifıcant and our impacts meaningful,” Steve says.
Satisfıed clients lead to a never-ending list of new prospective projects for AES. “As a part of our recently completed strategic plan,” says Steve, “we’re positioning our company to have the capacity to take on the world’s largest ecological problems. We’re going to go from hundreds of acres in restoration to millions of acres. The recognition of and actual needs for such work is expanding exponentially.” AES serves the critical role of mediator between human communities and natural communities enabling both to flourish.
Admits Steve, “It’s about humility at all levels of what we’re doing. We can’t and don’t claim to completely understand everything related to the economic, social, political and ecological aspects of our projects. We do, however, have open ears and a clear head to think about the future. We’re rethinking how we view the landscape, trying to demonstrate how changing the way we approach restoration and conservation will outweigh the preconceptions that many hold about how the landscape is supposed to look.” Applied Ecological Services is doing it one flower, pond, woodland and savanna at a time, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city—changing hearts and minds, one person at a time.