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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Win-Win Scenario

Wetland banks draw support from developers and environmentalists

The Columbian
Published: March 29, 2010, 12:00am

In the vernacular of old-time newspapering, it might be time to stop the presses: There’s something that developers and environmentalists can agree upon.

What’s next? Cats and dogs living together? Huskies and Cougars getting along? Republicans and Democrats agreeing on health care reform?

Some partnerships are difficult to fathom. But wetland mitigation banks seem to strike a mutually beneficial balance between the needs of developers and the concerns of environmentalists. And they are coming to Clark County.

An old cattle pasture in the Vancouver Lake lowlands is set to become an ecologically rich wetland. And if everything goes according to plan, it will allow for development projects along the Columbia River between Bonneville Dam and Longview, while at the same time producing a profit for the company that manages it.

It’s a win-win-win scenario in a habitually contentious area, and yet the logistics are simple:

• State regulators recently approved a wetland mitigation bank proposed by Habitat Bank Inc. of Woodinville. Doing business locally as Clark County Mitigation Partners, the company will turn a 154-acre property at the Port of Vancouver into an area filled with ponds and native vegetation.

• When a developer drains or fills low-grade wetlands within the service area along the Columbia, it may purchase a credit from Clark County Mitigation to offset the degradation at the development site.

Simple. And effective.

Because while developers traditionally have been required to create small wetland areas within the boundaries of a project, these offsets have been largely ineffective. Developers typically are not biologists nor are they water-quality experts, and requiring them to provide wetlands is akin to asking the chef at a five-star restaurant to also serve as maitre d’ and waiter. It’s not their area of expertise, and it detracts from their primary function.

Now the development and management of wetlands can be left to experts, and developers can make a purchase from the “bank.” That is the part that environmentalists like — a more effective way of offsetting damage caused by development.

The Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank is the first approved under new state rules that took effect in September. And while the notion of having the bank offset projects as far away as Bonneville Dam might be a little far-flung, it’s an idea whose time has come.

In an era of increased environmental awareness, developers, governments and activists have struggled to strike a balance between their conflicting concerns. While it is important for developers to have the ability to create and build and nurture progress, it is equally important to recognize the role of wetlands. Natural wetlands filter pollutants, corral flood waters, and provide wildlife habitat.

As we support the role that roads and schools and industrial parks can play in keeping our region vibrant and productive, we also guard against the danger of turning Clark County into a concrete jungle. Unchecked development would belie the fundamental ethos of the Northwest. But thoughtful development, with proper concern for the environment, can be beneficial for residents as well as future generations.

At their heart, wetland mitigation banks are capitalism personified. Clark County Mitigation Partners expects to spend about $1 million developing the site into wetlands, believing that selling future credits will result in a profit. The company sees a need, takes a risk, and hopes to profit in the long run.

It’s a traditional American approach to a modern problem, representing a compromise that can prove beneficial to all the parties involved. And in an age of stubborn ideologues, that just might qualify as breaking news.