Originally published in Port Works
At first glance, the rural outskirts of Ridgefield don’t seem to be a place where there’s a need for state-of-the art, high-speed broadband services. Here, the adventuring driver or cyclist will find the landscape dominated by vast expanses of pastureland, the occasional home or horse barn, and seasonally active or dormant farm vehicles. Beyond the bucolic scenery, however, there’s a business on the cusp of launching a new, investment-intensive operation that’s being crippled by the less-than-optimal internet and data connection speeds currently available in some parts of North Clark County.
An excursion beyond Ridgefield’s northern city limits to the end of Lancaster Road yields a large, crisp-white, 1850s Southern Colonial-style house perched above a wide expanse of emerald lawn fronted by towering evergreen trees. The house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as the Columbia Lancaster House, overlooks the Lewis River and the 1,700 acres that comprise Plas Newydd Farm, (Plas Newydd is pronounced plas newith; it’s Welsh for “new place”). The stately home now serves as the headquarters for Plas Newydd LLC and its 12 employees. Since 1941, the farm has operated under the ownership of the Morgan family. Ridgefield resident David Morgan is the managing partner of Plas Newydd LLC today. The reins of the company were passed to him nine years ago from his father Rhidian Morgan. Before that, David’s grandfather, Aubrey Niel Morgan, ran things. Early on the farm was supported by dairy farming, cattle ranching and sustainable forestry.
With changing times, Plas Newydd is changing, too. Today, limited and certified logging is the only original farm function in existence; dairy farming and cattle ranching have been replaced by leases for cattle grazing and duck hunting. Soon, with a look to the future and a nod to the Morgan family’s ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship, Plas Newydd is heading in a new direction.
Wapato Valley Mitigation and Conservation Bank
Since 2008, the Morgan family has been discussing the concept of restoring some of its cattle grazing land for use as a wetlands and habitat mitigation bank, which would serve to reestablish important natural habitat in the lower Columbia River region. Mitigation banks are necessary when a development project is to be constructed on environmentally-sensitive land. In these cases, developers are required to “mitigate” for project impacts by restoring wetlands functions. They can do this by creating their own wetlands or by purchasing credits. This national program helps to maintain the overall health of the country’s watershed ecosystems, while allowing economic development projects to move forward.
In 2013, Plas Newydd embarked on the effort in earnest, with a plan to restore nearly 900 acres to its historic ecological health as fish habitat under the name Wapato Valley Mitigation and Conservation Bank.
Now, after four years, and with as many as 10 full-time staff scientists on the project, Plas Newydd hopes to have its wetlands and conservation bank plan approved by year end. With approval in hand, the farm will then embark on the work to restore the bank portion of the property. It can also begin to recover its investment by selling mitigation and conservation credits.
“The bank certification process and planning to restore 876 acres is very involved, with a huge upfront investment. We hope to begin seeing a return on our dollars next year,” said Morgan.
The need for speed
The data collection and analysis work for this Plas Newydd undertaking requires a great deal of internet bandwidth. With the addition of the science and engineering team to the working farm, terabytes of information are processed regularly with highly-technical tasks: Wetlands and habitat productivity baselines are necessary to assess the current and future health of the aquatic and land-based flora and fauna in the bank area. Additionally, there is a regular need to use GIS and GPS to develop topography maps, send large design files, photos and video, data, maps, and more back and forth between agencies, remote contractors, or staff.
With no DSL available and just one landline serving Plas Newydd, the farm is limited by the 18-20 MBps wireless internet connection it receives from Scappoose, just across the Columbia River in Oregon.
The wait time to send or receive a large file can be up to 20 minutes, with someone waiting at each end. And that’s on a good day.
“When there’s heavy rain or wind, our signal is not stable and it degrades, which sometimes causes us to lose our connection and we have to start all over again.” Morgan said.
Off-site file back-up is challenging, too – Morgan currently hand-delivers a back-up data drive to a Vancouver storage center, instead of simply uploading the files to a remote server.
“We need at least 100 MBps to download and upload files. At the lower speed available now, we can’t conduct business like the rest of the world.” Yield on investment at risk The financial opportunity for Plas Newydd is not insignificant: According to the Ecosystem Marketplace website, which publishes newsletters, breaking news, original feature articles and major reports about market-based approaches to conserving ecosystem services, the annual transaction value for wetland mitigation credits is over $1 billion nationally – a share of which Plas Newydd hopes to capture. But slow internet speeds may put a crimp on things. Morgan says their future clients will be running industrial complexes, and will have an expectation of high speed technology availability. “Their perception of our business will affect the sale of conservation credits. The wetlands banking business is a competitive market, and with modern broadband speeds, we’d have a competitive advantage.” Morgan said it is ironic that while the Wapato Valley project is one of the largest habitat restoration projects and wetland mitigation bank proposals in the state of Washington, state-of-the-art business communications aren’t available to Plas Newydd farm. “We are not running at the speed of modern business. If I were siting this restoration business, I’d want a one gigabyte connection as my baseline. It’s the piece of infrastructure I need the most.” Option to move team out of Ridgefield Morgan acknowledges it was a choice to shift from consistent farming to high-speed internet-dependent conservation work. An option for Plas Newydd is to move its employees to a location in the Portland-Vancouver Metro area, where faster upload and download speeds are available. Morgan worries, however, that moving the operation out of the Ridgefield area would not only be challenging for Plas Newydd’s staff, who need to be close to the field work they do, but would also be detrimental to Ridgefield’s local economy. “When I work at home in Ridgefield I tend to buy all my things here. If we moved the office, my staff and I will be less likely to feed the Ridgefield economy.” Where the port comes in Due to his business’s demand for faster internet speeds, Morgan has been closely watching the Port of Ridgefield’s effort to develop broadband infrastructure, which would allow private internet providers to serve Ridgefield’s port district constituents and others in Southwest Washington. While funding is needed and there are other hurdles to overcome, port representatives are adamant Ridgefield needs the service. “Plas Newydd Farm is just one business that needs this key-critical infrastructure,” said Port CEO Brent Grening. “All of our businesses need to be connected to be successful in our modern world. That’s why the port is pursuing this project.” Grening is also highly-supportive of Plas Newydd’s undertaking. “The business they’re developing is a shining example of a business that serves the local economy and also tends to the environment. We need to help them where and how we are able, and infrastructure development is what we do,” he said. The Farm’s Future For David Morgan, upgraded broadband services can come nonetoo-soon. He emphasized that the success of the farm’s wetland bank is essential, as it will allow Plas Newydd a future as a financially-viable farm. “This is a legacy project for my family with its emphasis on a responsible, ethical land standard. We want to insure the farm’s long-term sustainability with the hope my family can keep the land in perpetuity.”