In Our View: Wetlands Wisdom

In banks, environmentalists, developers find form of mitigation they can agree on

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It is rare, indeed, to find an issue on which developers and environmentalists can agree. Typically, when issues arise between groups that often have competing interests, the best solution that can be hoped for is one that leaves neither side happy.Yet when it comes to wetlands mitigation and the work being performed by wetlands banks, well, it seems as if the plan was drawn up by the biblical Solomon. The wisdom involved is simple and yet genius.

As chronicled in a recent article by Columbian reporter Eric Florip, wetlands banks are the latest evolution of efforts to preserve the ecology of our region without unduly stifling the necessary growth and development that comes with an expanding population.

In the most basic terms, the banks work like this:

• When a company or a city or a school district wishes to undertake new construction, it must comply with a regulatory maze that demands a certain amount of wetlands be built or set aside and then preserved.

• For decades, this often led to haphazard wetlands being constructed in areas where they were not natural and not particularly effective.

• Wetlands banks now allow developers to purchase mitigation credits at designated sites apart from the actual construction.

For example, Habitat Banc NW has a 154-acre Columbia River site at which builders can purchase credits to offset their legal obligation for providing wetlands. This prevents the often-awkward result of creating small wetland areas as an afterthought.

"It really takes creation of the wetlands off our plate," said Woodland Superintendent Michael Green.

Green should know. His school district is building a new high school, forcing it to navigate environmental issues that were of no concern a generation ago. The district is close to purchasing wetlands mitigation credits from Habitat Banc NW.

The notion of buying mitigation credits still is fraught with regulations. As Zachary Woodward of Habitat Banc NW said, "There's no free pass for being able to use this or any mitigation bank. That's sort of a misconception." But in addition to providing more stable wetlands than might otherwise be constructed, it also stabilizes costs for developers rather than having them face the risk of unexpected expenditures in creating a wetland area.

Despite this being an age in which claims of overregulation are a political wedge issue, the notion of wetland set-asides is not going away. Creating a refuge for birds and other wildlife while developing natural vegetation is part of doing business as society attempts to balance environmental concerns with commerce.

The idea of wetland mitigation banks is relatively new, but by all accounts it is an improvement over the practices of previous generations, when new construction meant running the bulldozers over wherever you wished to build a structure.

In addition, the mitigation banks represent a new form of commerce. As Victor Woodward of Habitat Banc NW notes, he runs a for-profit business, investing in land and developing wetlands for the purpose of returning a profit on that investment. It's an ideal example of an entrepreneur seeing a new market and reacting to it. Credits at the Columbia River site sell for about $190,000 apiece.

Environmentalists receive a more reasonable and more effective method for creating wetlands. Developers receive a way to adhere to regulations without unduly hampering construction. And innovative businesses willing to take a risk receive the benefits of entrepreneurship.

With that unlikely convergence of success stories, the real winners are the general public.