Walmart and Biodiversity Conservation (Part 1): Acres for America

“The doubters got on board quickly when they saw that our P & L could benefit while we were doing good work for the environment. A constant theme for us in engaging our associates and stakeholders has been shared value: the need to integrate sustainability into business, not treat it as a separate effort, and to ensure we deliver business value as well as value for the environment and society.”
—Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

With 275 million weekly customers, it’s a safe bet that most of us have been to Walmart at one time or another. Walmart is the largest company in the world, with over US$ 514 billion in total revenue, and a staggering 2.2 million associates spread across 11,300 stores in 27 countries. The Walmart brand includes Walmart Supercenters, Walmart Neighborhood Markets, Sam’s Club (United States, Mexico, Brazil, and China), ASDA (England), and Seiyu (Japan). This behemoth’s supply chain includes over 100,000 suppliers from around the world … no small task to manage. Walmart clearly posts some jaw dropping figures in terms of it’s scale, but how does Walmart stack up in the world of biodiversity conservation?

Pretty darn good! While Walmart neglects to mention the word “biodiversity” in its 2019 Environmental, Social & Governance Report, the Company is doing a lot a great work the directly and indirectly benefits biodiversity. In fact, Walmart has become a leader in many aspects of corporate sustainability. So much so, that I ended up dedicating a whole chapter to Walmart’s conservation efforts in my book Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies that Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.

In the Companies that I’ll be profiling in these Corporations for Biodiversity blog posts, I’ll be focusing on just one or two strategies that have the most direct, tangible benefit to biodiversity / wildlife conservation, or strategies that are relatively unique.

In the case of Walmart, it has a variety of robust environmental goals associated with climate change and waste, such as the following:

  • By 2030, work with suppliers to reduce or avoid carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from by 1 gigaton from global value chains.
  • Be powered by 50% renewable sources by 2025.
  • Achieve zero waste to landfill from its own operations in key markets, including the U.S., U.K., Japan and Canada by 2025 in accordance with the Zero Waste International Alliance guidelines.
  • Achieve 100% recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable packaging in all Walmart private-brand products by 2025.

… and the list goes on.

The two goals that I’ll focus on in this post and next week’s post directly aim to address the biodiversity threat of habitat destruction / fragmentation:

  • Conserve 1 acre of land for every acre developed by Walmart stores in the U.S.
  • Achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.

This week’s post will address Walmart’s goal to conserve one acre of land for every acre developed by Walmart stores in the United States. To meet this goal, Walmart has adopted a voluntary compensatory strategy through its Acres for America Program. Here is some background on that Program.

In 2005, Walmart partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to establish the Acres for America program “to conserve lands of national significance, protect critical fish and wildlife habitat, and benefit people and local economies.”

Acres for America supports biodiversity and natural-resource conservation through four program priorities:

  1. Conserve critical habitats for birds, fish, plants, and wildlife.
  2. Connect existing protected lands to unify wild places and protect migration routes.
  3. Provide access for people to enjoy the outdoors.
  4. Support local economies that depend on forestry, ranching, and wildlife.

The results have been impressive. Walmart started with a goal to conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land developed by Walmart stores but has achieved closer to a 10:1 ratio of conservation to development.

To provide an example of how Walmart and the NFWF leverage those funds each year, let’s look at how those funds were allocated in 2019. In November of 2019, the Acres for America program awarded $3.6 million in grants, and leveraged an additional $70.2 million in matching contributions, to conserve 70,300 acres in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, and Kansas. The funds were allocated to support the following seven projects:

  • The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy will permanently conserve a 19,200-acre mountain property (Fisher’s Peak Ranch) located south of Trinidad, Colorado, which will become Colorado’s newest State Park. The property links intact habitat between the Eastern Plains of Colorado and the Western Slopes of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Grant amount $650,000.
  • The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will protect an 834-acre tract of untilled prairie and oak woodland in the Loess Hills of western Iowa just outside Sioux City. This area will become a State Wildlife Area within a 10,000 acre conservation area, ensuring that the grassland and savanna woodland species are properly managed. Grant amount $270,000.
  • Ranchland Trust of Kansas will partner with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, state and local partners to create a perpetual conservation easement on 9,250 acres of grasslands on the Ballet Ranch in the Red Hills of Kansas. The conservation easement will provide suitable habitat for species of concern, such as cave-dwelling bats, lesser prairie-chicken, plains minnow, longnose snake, and numerous grassland-obligate and migratory birds, while sustaining local economic viability as a working cattle ranch. Grant amount $650,000.
  • In eastern New Mexico, the Trust for Public Land will work with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire an 8,914-acre Cañon Ciruela property as an addition to the Sabinoso Wilderness, while will result in over 30,000 acres of protected wilderness. Grant amount $450,000.
  • In New York, the Nature Conservancy will establish a freshwater preserve at Follensby Pond in Adirondack Park, protecting 14,700 acres that are adjacent to the 275,000 acre High Peaks Wilderness Area. Grant amount $650,000.
  • In Oregon, the Trust for Public Land will work with federal, state and local partners to acquire the 7,500-acre Spence Mountain property on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake, providing critical fish and wildlife habitat. Grant amount $435,000.
  • In Washington, the Columbia Land Trust, in partnership with the Yakama Nation and federal and state agencies, will acquire 9,900 acre Mount Adams-Klickitat Canyon Forest in an effort to protect and restore the Wild & Scenic Klickitat River and its watershed. The canyon will connect federal and tribal protected habitat with thousands of acres of state and private conservation lands, providing critical habitat for 36 federally and state-listed wildlife species. Grant amount $500,000.

Walmart’s Acres for America program should not be confused with a traditional biodiversity offset program. Walmart’s voluntary compensatory action approach differs from a formal biodiversity offset in one important way: there’s no link between the actual biodiversity impacts of the company’s development activities and the biodiversity gains from purchasing land for conservation.

In other words, biodiversity offsets take the Walmart “acres-for-acres” conservation approach a step further by formally requiring no net loss of the biodiversity value of the land. Ideally, the goal is to obtain a positive net gain of biodiversity value from the transaction. The downside of biodiversity offsets is that they are more complex and expensive to implement. The costs and resources required to do a biodiversity offset can make traditional philanthropy and “acres-for-acres” conservation approaches more appealing and a better fit with stakeholder expectations, depending on the company, industry, and location.

In the case of Walmart, it’s very likely that the conservation value of the land purchased through the Acres for America program is greater than the conservation value of the land that Walmart is developing for its stores. As a result, the company chooses not to assess the type, scale, or amount of biodiversity lost and gained from each development project and land-conservation purchase. Instead, Walmart simply looks at the overall footprint of land developed for new stores and ensures that the company protects at least that many acres of high value habitat for conservation.

The results tell a compelling story. As of 2019, the Acres for America program has protected nearly 1.5 million acres, bringing it closer to its goal of conserving 2 million acres by 2025, and it has become the leading public-private land conservation partnership in the United States. It’s an effective approach that many other companies could benefit from imitating.

Well that’s all for today. Next week, we’ll look at another effective strategy that Walmart is putting into place that addresses the biodiversity threat of habitat loss: zero net deforestation.

Thanks for reading!

Mark

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Mark Aspelin is the Founder of Corporations for Biodiversity and author of the highly rated book “Profitable Conservation: Business Strategies That Boost Your Bottom Line, Protect Wildlife, and Conserve Biodiversity.”