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Wetlands left high and dry

By Times editorial
Published December 24, 2006


When wetlands can be bartered away for dry sandy hills, the market approach to environmental protection becomes a regulatory farce. But that's only part of what's perverse about so-called "mitigation banking" as compensation for the right to bulldoze pristine wetlands. Without real oversight and standards, this form of banking should forced put out of business.

In their latest investigation into state and federal wetlands regulation, Times reporters Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite revealed the ugly truths about a business-inspired environmental plan that purports to satisfy the national goal of "no net loss" of wetlands. What they found was far from it: destroyed Florida wetlands compensated by dry uplands; large tracts of replacement wetlands that were either not built, maintained or inspected; and well-connected entrepreneurs using these land banks to line their pockets, but not necessarily the Florida landscape, with green.

Pittman and Waite also found that Kenneth Wright, chairman of the state's Environmental Regulation Commission, has confused his public roles and private wetlands deals in a way that demands immediate attention. Wright, a development attorney, heads the commission that sets standards for environmental regulation in Florida and headed a board that oversees the Orlando-Sanford Airport. Two sworn depositions claim he took a commission on a wetlands compensation deal he engineered for the airport. He denies that but acknowledges taking commissions later from that same company, Ecobank, for "marketing" wetlands credits to his development clients.

Wright's profits from the wetlands market are such a stunning a conflict that he should be immediately removed from the ERC. The sworn accusations are explosive enough to warrant criminal investigation.

The role that well-connected lobbyists, lawyers and politicians have played in marketing wetlands "banks" to government and businesses is one of the unsettling side effects of this emerging billion-dollar industry. More ominous for the environment itself is how far removed the reality of wetlands "mitigation banking" is from the original theory.

Wetlands are so vital to filtering pollutants, replenishing water supplies and protecting against floods that they receive special protection under state and federal law. They are to be preserved if at all possible, and replaced if they must be destroyed. The newly restored or created wetlands are supposed to serve the same environmental purpose in the same watershed.

In one sense, then, "wetlands mitigation" is akin to a city tree ordinance. You cut down one tree to make room for a shed, you must plant another somewhere else in your yard.

With wetlands mitigation, though, the trade is all but lost. If a patch of wetlands was a backyard tree, it might end up being replaced by a bush or a flower instead. The flower might be planted in a neighbor's yard or in another city altogether, and it might die because no one watered it.

Pittman and Waite write that the Lake Louisa Wetland Mitigation Bank in Central Florida, with its sandy hills reaching 140 feet above sea level, is "as dry a piece of land as you'll find in the state." Yet regulators have certified that the restoration plan - less than 10 percent of which involves wetlands - qualifies fully for marketable "credits" against destruction of wetlands elsewhere. The state itself has handed the bank operators $2-million to compensate for destroying 102 acres of wetlands for an Orlando expressway.

Asked to explain how such deals prevent the net loss of wetlands in Florida, one environmental consultant just laughed. "Yeah, well," he said, "good luck with that."

The Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank is at least as absurd. A developer is restoring 1,600 acres on the island, which is off the coast of Southwest Florida, as compensation for wetlands destruction as far as 30 miles inland. How does that save the ecosystem? The kicker is that the land itself is owned by the state. Public land used as leverage to destroy wetlands?

These kinds of mitigation practices are so far removed from the original intent as to call into question the motivations of state and federal regulators. Any ruling that treats uplands and faraway wetlands as though they are equal compensation for destroyed wetlands is simply a free pass for development.

Another revealing regulatory shortcoming is the lack of enforcement. One of the virtues of mitigation banking is that it creates large tracts of wetlands that are then easier to monitor. Yet the Government Accountability Office last year reviewed the files of 15 large mitigation projects in the Jacksonville office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and found that 10 had never been inspected. One mitigation bank in Clay County that sold credits for five years without ever being converted to wetlands is only 16 miles from the inspection offices.

The notion that wetlands can be remade in wholesale tracts, motivated by profit, is turning out to be largely an illusion, and regulators can no longer pretend otherwise. In Florida, Gov.-elect Charlie Crist brings an environmental ethic to the office and should demand some answers. How can regulators replace wetlands with uplands and claim no loss? How can huge land banks that facilitate wetlands destruction go uninspected? How can mining pits be converted to functional wetlands?

Florida has now approved more than 40 wetlands mitigation banks that cover more than 118,000 acres, yet it has precious little evidence of success. The promise of mitigation banks was to end the steady loss of vital wetlands, but the market approach is killing Mother Nature. If these banks can't deliver, they should be shut down.

[Last modified December 24, 2006, 07:16:23]

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