Over the last two hundred years, Ohio has lost ninety percent of its wetlands, the worst record in the nation. Today there's a growing recognition of the value of wetlands as a resource for protecting the quality of our water, reducing flooding and erosion, preserving bio-diversity, and providing a habitat for wildlife. But wetlands protection has been a controversial issue. Environmentalists are sharply critical of the federal policy of wetland mitigation - impacting one wetland in exchange for protecting another. INFOHIO's/90.3's Karen Schaefer explores the issue of mitigation as she takes us to a wetland mitigation project in Lorain County where results have vastly exceeded expectations.
Karen Schaefer- Last summer at a hearing of the Ohio EPA, residents of Lorain County gathered to voice their opinions about a proposed turnpike interchange. At stake was the future of several acres of wetlands believed to be the home of a population of rare salamanders. Tom Harcarik, an environmental specialist with the Division of Surface Water, says there was real cause for concern.
Tom Harcarik- There was a wetland that was adjacent to the railroad that would be impacted...However, even some of the smaller wetlands on site were able to support breeding populations of salamanders.
John Katko- It may be a very important site, as far as evolution of these animals, and we're watching speciation occur right before our faces.
KS- It was John Katko who discovered the salamanders.He's president of The Friends of the Wetlands, a non-profit organization that educates Ohioans about the value of wetlands.
JK- ...we very rarely get such a clear glimpse into these processes. And we really need to protect places like this so that science can gather data, because very little data has been gathered about it.
KS- But protecting wetlands from competing development is a complex issue. Once the value of the wetlands has been established, the EPA requires that every effort be made to minimize the impact of development. Tom Harcarik says if that can't be done, mitigation is used, to compensate the loss of one wetland by creating or restoring another.
TH- We also require that mitigation be looked at on site first. And the purpose for that is to maintain whatever functions and values those wetlands were accruing to the same watershed. But sometimes there are situations when you need to go off-site. Perhaps it was a low-quality wetland and you can place the site in a high-quality wetland off-site and there's a net, overall public benefit.
KS- Because it's difficult for developers to become overnight wetlands experts, the federal government set up a program to create mitigation banks. These banks are organizations that provide high-quality wetlands for off-site mitigation. The developer buys credit in the bank, which then uses the funds to create protected wetland preserves. Ohio has several mitigation banks, including the Ohio Wetlands Foundation, formed in 1992 by the Ohio Home Builders Association. Last year, the Foundation completed work on its third mitigation project, a wetland restoration created on land owned by the Lorain County Metroparks. It's now the Sandy Ridge Reservation in North Ridgeville.
Gary Gerone- ...the Metroparks did not derive the funds for this out of the capital budget. This came from developers...throughout the greater Lorain County area. We really aren't involved in development projects. Wetlands mitigation is just a thing that allows that to take place. But if it's going to take place, what better recipient would there be than a Metropark?
KS- Gary Gerone is the Naturalist Supervisor for the Lorain County Metroparks. On a recent, cold late-winter morning he made a trip to Sandy Ridge to check up on its 300 acres of watery wildlife habitat.
KS- My goodness, there are a lot of birds.
GG- We've got...I can name what we see over here, we've got mallard and black duck and green-winged teal. It's a good number of birds today...There's a falcon flying across here. It's a kestrel with something in its talons. It seems to be something with a very short, little tail...I'm guessing he's got a meadow vole...One of the most amazing things about this Sandy Ridge Reservation is not just the number of migrant birds we get, but the number of nesting birds. We had our sights set very, very high and our goals were so far exceeded last year it just amazed us. This will be probably the best birding site in all of Greater Cleveland... I'm cold."
KS- Yeah, me too.
Gary Gerone- ...to destroy a wetland that isn't understood and create a pond somewhere else...isn't seen as anything positive. If you take it away, in our lifetime, you can't get it back. And so what we want to do as part of our educational mission is not just to remind people or preach about that kind of thing, but create and awareness, an appreciation, an understanding of natural processes and let people make informed decisions.
KS- But it's not all positive.While the Sandy Ridge Reservation cost the park system nothing to create, it does cost taxpayers to maintain and operate the site. Some critics point out that preserving wetlands in land already set aside for parks doesn't add to the total acreage under protection. And some mitigation projects - particularly newly-created wetlands - fail. But at Sandy Ridge, birds and beasts, plants and clean water - and the people who appreciate them - will have a home for years to come. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Lorain County.