Making the right soup out of wetlands

Southeast wild

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2000

Have you ever heard the saying, ``It's like mixing apples and oranges?'' How about ``That's more messed up than a soup sandwich?'' Making a sandwich out of soup is kind of like trying to make good bird or fish habitat out of concrete. It is less than successful. But there might be a way to have it all. You can serve the sandwich on a plate next to the bowl of soup. Or you could have your sandwich for lunch and your soup for dinner. Wetlands are the same way. It's hard to build a parking lot on wetlands and still have the birds come back. But maybe there is a way to have both.

That's just what the Juneau Wetlands Management Plan (JWMP) called for when it included a provision to establish a wetlands mitigation bank. The goals of the provision are to: conserve wetland resources, facilitate responsible development and ease the permitting process. However, a traditional mitigation bank focuses on restoration projects to assure no net loss of wetlands. This past fall, as the chefs began stirring the mitigation soup in Juneau, it became clear that the traditional recipe would not work here. We just don't have the right ingredients!

Our homegrown elements are unique; the chefs found that it may make more sense to mix in preservation easements as well as stir in restoration. Chopping and blending, calling in a few sous chefs, the Juneau mitigation kitchen started warming up.

While the JCMP was adopted in 1992, the bank was never developed. In the fall of 1999, the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) received a grant from the EPA Wetlands Protection Program to help establish a wetlands mitigation program. CBJ hired Wildlands Inc., a mitigation specialty firm, to help with the program. Wildlands Inc. visited Juneau in late October to meet CBJ staff and tour wetlands sites. They also met with the Wetlands Review Board, agency and citizen representatives and others affected by wetlands regulations.

However, Wildlands Inc. quickly realized that the unique qualities of Juneau require a special recipe. A traditional mitigation bank focuses on restoration projects to assure no net loss of wetlands. Here in Juneau, it may make more sense to apply preservation easements as well as restore wetlands. In the lower 48, no net loss of wetlands is a requirement. That standard is not applied in Alaska. This may offer greater flexibility as to how the program is set up.

While CBJ's focus shifted from building a mitigation bank to creating a wetlands mitigation program, the goals remain the same as originally called for in the JWMP: to conserve wetland resources, facilitate responsible development and ease the permitting process.

We have recruited a team of wetlands ``sous chefs'' to work as a task force assisting the Wetlands Review Board and Wildlands Inc. develop a direction for the mitigation program. The task force will be evaluating program aspects to assure that the result is one that is environmentally beneficial, affordable and fair.

The goal is to produce a beneficial program for both the environment and the development community. It may take time, but it is possible for wetlands to be restored, created or preserved by wetlands experts and experienced contractors. Credits for these wetlands could then be purchased by developers to meet mitigation requirements of federal, state and local permits. Funds from the sale of these credits could be used to restore create or preserve additional wetlands and could provide new credits for sale.

The mitigation program will allow builders to focus on what they do best: develop. Alternatively, wetland projects will be constructed, or areas preserved and then managed by experts interested in the environmental benefits of wetlands rather than by developers interested in developing.

Additionally, a mitigation program could offer a pooling of resources rather than a piecemeal approach to mitigation. In Juneau, where much of our wetland fill projects are relatively small, ranging from three-tenths of an acre to three acres in size, a mitigation program could allow for better mitigation of cumulative impacts. The chance for a long-term environmental benefit of mitigation is increased through a comprehensive program.

Other potential benefits to the community could be to help alleviate flooding, to provide parkland, and areas for hunting and educational opportunities.

Ultimately, a wetlands mitigation program will need to be approved by the CBJ assembly as well as supported by the resource agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers. However, for a mitigation program to gain this approval it will have to be a program that can be supported by all the stakeholders: it will need to be crafted just for Juneau.

After all the details are worked out and support is gained, a prospectus and ultimately a mitigation-banking instrument will be developed. These documents will contain the physical and legal characteristics of the bank, including establishment and operational procedures.

How will our soup taste?

While not your run-of-the-mill soup, the mitigation soup will likely have some traditional ingredients. The program base will require an extensive amount of management to ensure that mitigation projects are maintained and function in perpetuity. A developer will still be required to go through the permitting process. On-site mitigation and minimization of wetland impacts will still be evaluated and pursued. However, in the event that those options do not exist, a mitigation program can offer a tasty alternative that can ease the permitting process for the developer and benefit the environment and community as a whole. As the process evolves, we hope to create a recipe for success and with a good after taste for all!

Katharine Heumann and Sylvia A. Kreel are planners in the CBJ Community Development Department.

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