Wading in the Wetlands Morass

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NOW that the Bush administration has thoroughly embarrassed itself over wetlands preservation - letting Dan Quayle and his White House schemers try to undercut worthwhile environmental efforts and then being forced to back off when government scientists complained that politics and not good science was behind the move - it's time to highlight what's being done around the country to save this diminishing resource.Two projects in particular are worth noting, one recently completed, one about to begin. Several years ago, Spectra-Physics, a company that manufactures optical laser scanners (the gadgets that read bar codes), decided to expand its business in Eugene, Ore. In the process of applying for permits, it found that the existing facility had been built on a wetland, apparently in violation of federal regulations. Faced with a $90 million fine, the company decided not to pursue a costly and time-consuming lawsuit and instead worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nature Conserva ncy, and city officials to create a 42-acre wetland. On land that 19th-century settlers had drained for farming, a Seattle environmental-consulting firm (Hart Crowser) recreated a complete wetland using native vegetation. This included transplanting 6,000 saplings that were a problem for a nearby prairie preserve but just what the new wetland needed. That was six months ago, and now Canada geese have made it their home, along with other birds and mammals on what is the largest wetlands restoration project in the Pacific Northwest. Everybody wins here. The manufacturer gets its new facility and some good PR instead of an environmental black eye. Spectra-Physics's parent company in Sweden will donate the land to the city of Eugene in five years. And the city has gotten a $50,000 grant from the EPA to build a greenbelt with bike paths through the new wetland. And the critters get their habitat back. Shift the scene south a few hundred miles to a wetlands-restoration proposal that covers 2,000 acres, the largest west of the Mississippi. Near where the Sacramento River flows into San Francisco Bay, ranchers in the 1880s drained historic marshland for cattle grazing. It was just one small part of the 90 percent of all California wetlands that have been lost over the years to agriculture, industry, housing, and airport runways. Meanwhile, millions of cubic yards of sediment are dredged from the Bay each year to maintain and expand water navigation for commercial shipping and the US Navy. The sediment is dumped at other spots in the Bay or in the Pacific Ocean, often with harmful results. Over the next decade, Catellus Development Corporation, the company that owns the 2,000 acres, plans to dispose of the sediment (first making sure it includes no hazardous waste) by restoring the wetland. The cost of hauling the sediment, plus contouring and channeling the site and reintroducing native vegetation and wildlife, will be paid for by the sediment hauling fees. Biologists from the nearby University of California campus at Berkeley will oversee what's called the Montezuma Wetlands Project, as will the US Army Corps of Engineers and state and federal environmental agencies. Again, if all goes as planned, everybody wins. The company gets its value out of the land. Tens of millions of cubic yards of Bay sediment are put to good use. And wildlife habitat (which sits right in the middle of the pacific flyway) is improved. When the restoration is complete, Catellus plans to donate the land to a public agency or a private land-conservation group. The local Army Corps of Engineers commander calls it "an important model for wetlands restoration and dredged sediment management not only for this state, but nationally." Now, imagine what could happen if the Bush administration put its full support to efforts like these instead of trying to back-pedal from the president's "no-net-loss" campaign pledge on wetlands. The steady loss of wetlands could truly be reversed. Absent the current highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the subject, a reasonable set of federal regulations could be designed, including some needed protection for property owners. And who knows, we might even start thinking of Mr. Bush as the "environm ent president."

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