Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Preserving Natural Wetland As Mitigation

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

Having posted a few days ago about the Thumb Land Conservancy monitoring and stewardship of the two preserves along Michigan Road in Port Huron Township, I decided to write about preservation of wetland as mitigation in general. Back in 2005, when I started intensively promoting preservation of existing natural wetland in Saint Clair County as mitigation, or replacement, for permitted wetland impacts, I wasn’t real hopeful it would ever catch on. But, I’m happy to realize it finally has, at least for a while. The economic down-turn of 2007-08 has been a big factor in making this more feasible, so if and when the real estate market returns to pre-recession levels, unfortunately, preservation may not be so popular. But, back in 2011, the news that 51 acres was to be preserved by the Saint Clair County Road Commission and Pro-Tel Development as wetland mitigation was like a breath of fresh air. Finally it seemed, preservation was becoming so routine that here were two permit applicants, that I hadn’t been involved with previously, who were doing this on their own.

I have written about the wetland preservation option before, but as a reminder, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provides two general mitigation options for wetland permits; construction of new artificial wetland in upland, or preservation of existing, natural, high quality wetland. In the 1980’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, it seemed that most wetland mitigation was attempted through construction. It’s usually an expensive and risky way to go, and more importantly, is contrary to the natural history of an area. Unfortunately, most constructed wetland has turned out as ponds ringed by only a narrow band of wetland vegetation. A study by the MDEQ issued in the early 2000’s showed that something like 90% of the wetland mitigation sites they studied across the state were largely failures. As I’ve said, construction seems especially senseless when we have all this great natural wetland already here, just setting around getting filled without permits. Sometimes drained wetlands are restored as mitigation, but usually if a wetland is drained, the owner wants to keep it that way.

Preservation of existing wetland as mitigation through the MDEQ can be difficult. The wetland must be considered high quality, or a rare ecological type, or must perform exceptional physical or biological functions. While some may differ with me, eastern Saint Clair County is very fortunate in this regard. Great Lakes marsh and lakeplain wet prairie are located across the Saint Clair River delta and the Algonac to Marine City area. Northern upland and swamp forest complex, containing Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium – Trillium undulatum and other rare species, sprawls across Port Huron, Kimball, and Clyde Townships. Forested beach ridge and swale landscape stretches along the shoreline of Lake Huron in Fort Gratiot and Burtchville Townships. To the west, large wetlands are associated with Mill Creek, the Pine River, and Belle River.

The most difficult aspect of preservation as mitigation is the requirement that wetland be preserved at a 10-to-1 replacement ratio. That means, for every acre of wetland filled or otherwise eliminated, 10 acres of wetland must be preserved. That made preservation hard to compete with constructed or restored wetland, until about 2008 when development and land prices in the region dropped significantly. Then, some landowners actually inquired about selling their land for preservation. It was a real twist, one that I never expected to see. Since then, in my opinion, preservation has been the way to go for wetland mitigation. In the landowner’s or permit applicant’s favor, the MDEQ can grant a 20% reduction in the required mitigation due to the presence of high quality or essential uplands included in the proposed preserve area. This effectively reduces the mitigation to an 8-to-1 ratio, a little closer to the usual 1.5-to-1 or 2-to-1 ratios required for constructed or restored wetland.

Even before the “Great Recession”, I promoted the preservation option whenever I could. My first big project as a wetland consultant in which the applicant received a substantial amount of preservation credit was in 1992 for the Super Kmart and Sam’s Club development in Port Huron Township. The developer originally wanted to align the two stores in a large “L” shape so that Super Kmart would face I-69 from the north end of the property. Also, the Sam’s Club store was to be much larger. With the original building alignment and size, the development would have filled most of the site. But, due to the extent of State-regulated wetland and the mitigation credit available in preserving the higher quality swamp forest on the north end of the site, the development was realigned and scaled-back. Otherwise, all of the forest along the north entrance from Howard Street would have been lost. What we lacked in preservation credit, we made up for by constructing some wetland along the north entrance and east of the store. For anyone familiar with the big pond or small lake behind the store, it wasn’t originally supposed to be that wet. After the engineering was completed and the wetland permit issued, the City of Port Huron informed the site engineer that no storm water could be discharged from the site to the City due to their ongoing sewer separation. But I guess that’s another story for another time.

Super Kmart and Sam's Club. Mitigation wetland outlined in light blue.

Later, I was somewhat involved with preservation of wetland on the Shorewood Forrest condominium development in Fort Gratiot. I did a lot of wetland delineation out there for Erwin Wilton, owner of Wilton’s TV and Appliance, and his development partner of Larry McPhedrain, owner of Mary Maxim. I advised them on the wetland permitting and mitigation. But even before I was involved, Erwin saw the benefit of preserving the long wetlands of the beach ridge and swale landscape. Most of the roads and houses are positioned on the upland ridges with the yards backing to the wetland swales between.

Another big preservation project just south of Shorewood Forrest was the Presbyterian Villages of Michigan Lake Huron Woods senior living community in Fort Gratiot in 2003. There, I worked with PVM and their engineer to obtain a wetland permit for a future phase of the community. As mitigation for almost 3 acres of wetland impact, we preserved about 40 acres of high quality forested beach ridge and swale landscape containing nearly 30 acres of wetland.

Shorewood Forrest and Lake Huron Woods preserves.

In 1998 I started working with Bill Kettlewell on what eventually became the large constructed wetlands on the Fort Gratiot Nature Park north of the landfill and along the east side of Parker Road. I initially advised on some of the construction, but most of my work over the next 5 years was the annual monitoring required by the MDEQ. I give Bill’s excavator, Jeff, a lot of credit for the work he did out there. But at the same time, the State of Michigan encouraged the destruction of a large area of beach ridge and swale landscape to get the acreage of wetland they wanted. I suggested to the MDEQ that they ought to consider backing-off their mitigation requirement a bit and allowing preservation of what remained, but they didn’t feel they could modify their mitigation agreement. I haven’t verified, but some say that was the largest wetland mitigation required in the State at that time; 40 acres north of the landfill and close to 60 acres along Parker Road.

Fort Gratiot Nature Park constructed wetland preserves.

Around 2005, Saint Clair County got involved in contracting wetland mitigation banks. As I recall, there were two being constructed, and a third was proposed. The County apparently spent a lot of money on these. I attended a presentation by one of the contractors. Never having been a fan of constructed wetland, even those I designed, I wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospects of replacing yet more of our natural wetlands with something designed at the whim of consultants and excavated like just another piece of the developed world. At that time I was doing a lot of work for former Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner Fred Fuller. Thanks to his interest in wetlands, he clearly made the connection between drainage issues and protecting wetlands to save taxpayers money in the drain districts. I told Fred that I’d had enough of constructed wetland attempts, and that I was going to start promoting the little known option of preservation. Fred thought it was a good idea, and so he used preservation on at least one of his projects at that time. Then, Fred and I decided to have a meeting with former Saint Clair County Administrator Troy Feltman to further promote preservation in the County. I guess we thought we might be able to head-off some of the huge expenditures that were intended for new mitigation bank construction. Then County Planner Bill Kauffman also attended the meeting. I’m really not sure if there was any interest in preservation expressed at that meeting. About all I remember was being told that this was “just another tool in the toolbox” and how the County had some great computer program that could calculate all the functions of wetlands and rank them as to which ones are the best. Ranking natural areas can be important, but without a broader perspective, it amounts to just more of what I consider “ecological triage”, or picking out the best pieces of our ravaged Southeast Michigan landscape for the no-brainer protection these areas deserve while letting everything else go. Anyway, I don’t think the County understood the MDEQ process for approving wetland preservation, and they didn’t seem real interested in knowing about it or about the success we had in sites already preserved. They also didn’t see the potential in this like I did.

Saint Clair County, especially the Port Huron area, has some large wetland areas that many consider an impediment to developing every last piece of ground. But, these wetlands could be used to mitigate for development in other areas. I will admit, as much as I want all of nature to be preserved, the Port Huron area has been placed at a clear disadvantage for future development because of wetland regulation. I’ve always felt that because there is so much wetland in close proximity to Port Huron, that someone in the County administration could make a good case to the State of Michigan for reducing the standard mitigation ratio for preservation from 10-to-1 down to maybe as low as 5-to-1 within a special development zone. The County and State might consider a huge cooperative wetland restoration effort to make up for this reduced preservation ratio, and I know where I would propose this restoration. I would sure try this if I was in a County leadership position. This would make the preservation option much more feasible in the long run, protect more wetland by getting it off the market rather than leaving it to regulatory enforcement, and would make landowners and developers a little happier.

National Wetlands Inventory map showing wetlands (green) concentrated west of Port Huron.  

About the same time as our meeting with the County, I was still involved with Presbyterian Villages of Michigan on their Lake Huron Woods senior living center west of M-25 and north of Carrigan Road in Fort Gratiot. I was extremely fortunate, and perhaps blessed, to be able to work with PVM President Roger Myers. Being headquartered in the Detroit area, Roger was accustomed to a different world where communities often work cooperatively, where development is not viewed so much in isolation, and where there is more of a perspective beyond the immediate. In other words, there is usually a bit more sophistication or urban savvy, for lack of being able to grasp exactly the right words. So, when Roger realized that we were going to preserve 40 acres on the Lake Huron Woods site, he knew that the value of the property to be placed under a State conservation easement could be considered a funding match for various grant applications. We thought the Township or County or someone should be interested in this, but there is typically a limited time to make use of such matches, a year to sometimes 3 years. We even had a personal meeting with Tom Woiwode of the GreenWays Initiative, a special program of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Tom was my former boss in the mid 1980’s when I worked for The Nature Conservancy in East Lansing. Unfortunately, Roger couldn’t get anyone locally interested in taking advantage of the funding match that PVM would willingly offer. Who knows what we might have been able to do with that. I’ve always felt bad about that opportunity being wasted.

Later, in 2006 through 2008, I was involved with a few more projects of Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner Fred Fuller in which substantial wetlands were preserved as mitigation for drain projects. These included a few areas protected as part of the Bunce Creek and Huffman Drain improvements in the Marysville area. The TLC received its first nature preserve as a result of this project, the Dead End Woods Sanctuary, located between the dead end of Wilson Drive, Blueberry Lane, and Old Farm subdivision in Fort Gratiot.

Dead End Woods Sanctuary.

In 2006, I was indirectly involved with the preservation of about 12 acres of wetland and the larger northern forest complex, now a park, behind the Kimball Township Hall on the east side of Wadhams Road. This preserve contains Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium. In 2007, I also assisted Saint Clair County Parks and Recreation in preserving approximately 30 acres of wetland and upland forest in Kimball Township along the Wadhams to Avoca Trail, not far east of the Kimball Township Hall park, east of Allen Road and along the north side of I-69. This site also contains Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium and our discovery of it was documented in a Port Huron Times Herald article by Mike Connell:

Wadhams To Avoca Trail preserve and Kimball Township Hall preserve.

Since the “Great Recession”, convincing a permit applicant of the benefits of preservation versus construction has been much easier. In 2009, I assisted Dr. Syed Hamzavi in preserving nearly 12 acres of beach ridge and swale landscape as wetland mitigation for a proposed expansion of the Hamzavi Dermatology office in Fort Gratiot. This is how the TLC received its third nature preserve, the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary, south of Metcalf Road and west of M-25 in Fort Gratiot.

Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary.

Since 2012, I have been working with Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner Bob Wiley on preservation of over 200 acres of beach ridge and swale landscape in Fort Gratiot and about 30 acres of an old-growth northern forest complex in Kimball Township containing Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium. We are hopeful for some good news on this project soon.

If you have any interest in preserving wetland on your property as mitigation, please contact us. We can investigate your land and guide you through the process. There are fewer mitigation opportunities these days compared to about 10 years ago simply because there is less development and less wetland permits being applied for. However, when a potential opportunity arises, it helps to be prepared.