Protecting Ohio's Isolated Wetlands

Karen Schaefer- From the road, it looks like any other patch of wet woods at the edge of a farm field. Venerable willows and slender red maples ring an 11-acre central pond, only just visible through a gap in the trees. But fight your way through the tangled thickets of swamp rose, blackberries, and wild foxgrape and you'll come to the secret heart of Camden Bog.

Roger Lauschman- Historically, where we're standing was a mat. And it extended, if you look at old photographs, the peat mat was out a good 30 feet or so.

KS- Roger Lauschman is a biologist at Oberlin College, which bought the property a decade ago. He's been studying the ecosystem of the bog, discovering rare species of plants and animals unique to bog habitat. Today, he spots something unusual in the still waters of the pond.

RL- There's a really neat animal...You see these big globs out there, these big, yellow-ish globs in the water? That's a colonial animal called a bryozoan.

KS- Camden Bog is an example of what's known as an isolated wetland, a wetland not connected by surface water to other ponds, lakes or streams. Lauschman says that's a recent development.

RL- All of this land from here to Indiana was enormous wetlands, the Great Black Swamp. And now it's full of isolated wetlands, because of lowering the water table and leaving places like this that were deep enough that remain. So all the woods around here are like little islands and each one of them has a wetland in the middle of it. And those are islands in a sea of agriculture.

KS- Since the Great Black Swamp was drained in the late 1800's, Ohio has lost more than 90% of its wetlands. That's a record of destruction second only to that of California. For years, the U.S. EPA has been regulating impacts to water quality when isolated wetlands are destroyed to build homes, roads, and shopping centers. But last January a federal court in California overturned that authority. The so-called SWANCC ruling sent many states scrambling to fill the void with their own state laws. In Ohio, Republican state lawmaker Keith Faber crafted House Bill 231.

Keith Faber- This bill was set forth with three key purposes: promote consistency and predicatbility in Ohio's environmental regulatory scheme. The second factor is to increase both the quantity and quality of Ohio's wetland resources. And then finally, we also wanted to protect Ohio's most sensitive assets from development at all.

KS- Not all isolated wetlands are created equal. Some larger wetlands, like Oberlin College's Camden Bog, support a rich diversity of wildlife the Ohio EPA classifies as the highest quality, Category III. These are the sensitive areas backers say the new law will protect. But scientists contend that all natural wetlands provide important benefits in reducing flooding and filtering out pollutants. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that nearly half of the state's remaining wetlands are small areas, less than an acre in size. It's these small, lower-quality wetlands that activists like Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council say are now in the path of the developer's bulldozer.

Jack Shaner- The reality in the state legislature is, it's very business-friendly, very open to the home builders' industry, especially, as well as contractors who said, look, we've had it.

KS- Shaner charges the new law makes it easier for developers to get permits to destroy isolated wetlands. And he's not alone. In all, 13 state environmental groups have protested provisions in the law, ranging from new restrictions on public input to the way in which replacing destroyed wetlands is handled. Despite a requirement to replace even low-quality wetlands by a two to one ratio, they say the new law will probably hasten destruction. Joe Koncelik, assistant director of the Ohio EPA, doesn't agree.

Joe Koncelik- The goal of that program and our interest going in was to try to create a reasonable permitting program that would match the level of review required to the quality of the resources that were being impacted.

KS- Environmentalists say those new procedures are a developer's dream. But Vince Squellece, head of the Ohio Homebuilder's Association, says no one wants to pay the cost for replacing wetlands destroyed by new construction.

Vince Squellece- You happen to have one acre of category wetland on your development project and you have to create two acres of wetlands to replace that. So it's roughly an extra, say $30,000 just to fill those wetlands on your site. So if that's a single-family home, the price for that lot is going to go up at least $30,000.

KS- Environmentalists says other states have done a better job protecting isolated wetlands, notably Oregon, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. But the new Ohio law is now in force. And this fall, conservationists and pro-development forces may square off once again over a new proposal to extend similar state regulations over the remaining 60% of Ohio's wetlands. In Camden Township, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.

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