The large concern that we are allowing natural wetlands to be destroyed without replacing them with equivalent wetlands is valid because the "no net-loss" policy is not being upheld in terms of wetland function (Cole and Brooks 2000). The studies that have been focused around this concern have all concluded that replacement wetlands are not equivalent to the natural wetlands they are supposed to substitute for.
Although wetland mitigation policy has been implemented for almost a decade, and since its start mitigation wetlands have failed to function as natural wetlands, the general public is just becoming aware of the implications of wetland destruction and mitigation. In the November 10th, 2001 edition of the Columbus Dispatch, an article entitled "Corps' Plan for Wetlands Angers Critics" was printed on the front page, amidst the news on the war in Afghanistan.
November 10, 2001 Columbus Dispatch NEWS A01
"Corps' Plan for Wetlands Angers Critics"
Federal regulators are moving away from a decade-old program that allows developers to destroy wetlands if they create substitute patches of the environmentally sensitive landscapes. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers will let developers fill in wetlands if they preserve other existing wetlands or establish buffers of trees and other vegetation along streams. Corps leaders say the new policy will strengthen former President Bush's 1989 pledge that there would be "no net loss'' of wetlands. But environmentalists contend the policy will make it easier for developers to destroy marshes, swamps and bogs that serve vital ecological functions.
Wetlands are sometimes called the "kidneys of the earth'' because they cleanse and filter water before it flows into streams and lakes. Once considered to be useless, bug-infested swamps, wetlands now are valued for providing natural flood control and important habitats for birds and other wildlife. The corps announced the new policy last week in response to a National Academy of Sciences study that reviewed hundreds of replacement wetlands. The academy found that some were never started, some were not completed and others failed to provide the benefits of natural wetlands.
"We haven't done a good enough job, but we are strongly committed to the 'no net loss' policy,'' Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle, the corps' deputy commander, said yesterday during a tour of Ohio State University's Olentangy River Wetlands Research Park. "If we can turn this over to professionals on a large scale, I think we can do a better job enhancing the quality and quantity of wetlands.''
The federal Clean Water Act prohibits discharging soil and sand into U.S. waters without a permit. Regulation of wetlands is shared among the corps, the Environmental Protection Agency and states, but the corps has final say on permit applications. Property owners generally have three options when seeking to fill in a wetland: build around the area, buy credits from organizations known as "wetland banks'' that preserve other existing areas, or attempt to create artificial wetlands on once-dry land. Van Winkle said relying on wetland banks, the preferred option of developers, is better because it preserves large tracts rather than smaller patches that can be compromised by surrounding subdivisions and shopping centers.
Environmental groups are angry that the corps adopted the policy without first giving the public a chance to comment. "I don't know why any developer would try to avoid a wetland if they could just buy some credits in a wetland bank,'' said Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation. "That's not how you achieve the 'no net loss' goal.''
Ohio already has lost 90 percent of its wetlands. Nationally, the loss of wetlands has slowed, but the academy study found that the "no net loss'' goal has not been met. Since 1993, the corps has required about 42,000 acres of substitute wetlands to be built each year on average, according to the study. Those areas were to compensate for the annual loss of about 24,000 acres. The requirement was only on paper, though. The study concluded that the corps often fails to track compliance, and when it does, compliance has been poor.
"We don't have the resources to conduct a comprehensive review of every permit,'' Van Winkle said. "And frankly, there isn't a strong desire in Washington for more regulators.'' Developers say relying on wetland banks will ensure that high- quality wetlands are preserved. The Ohio Home Builders Association formed a nonprofit foundation in 1992 that took advantage of what then was a little-used alternative to preserving wetlands at the site of a development. The foundation's wetland banks include sites at the Hebron Fish Hatchery in Licking County, the Big Island Nature Preserve near Marion and a metro park in Lorain County. "Our environmental laws were never written or intended to stop development,'' said Vince Squillace, a lobbyist for the home-builders association.
- Michael Hawthorne, The Columbus Dispatch
The continued scientific studies and media coverage of wetland mitigation and its failures is pushing policy makers to re-evaluate mitigation policy. The importance of natural wetlands in our landscape does not seem to be fully realized by the government. It is hoped that stricter mitigation policy will be implemented in the future, dissuading people from destroying natural wetlands and requiring the creation of better, more functional wetlands than those that are being created today.