A Question of Mitigation
Landscape architects are increasingly involved in constructing wetlands to replace those wiped out by development. Is it an even trade?
By Lisa Owens Viani
Courtesy Wildlands, Inc.
To county planners, “Subdivision 8533” in El Sobrante,
California, is 10 acres of infill development opportunity—open space slated for
40 homes. To community activists, it is the last piece of green in a sea of
Two forks of Garrity Creek, lined with willows and
cottonwoods, meander through the property; the calls of birds and frogs are a
bucolic background symphony. The site’s steep slopes are soggy with seeps and
springs. These wetlands—and how to avoid impacting them—are at the crux of a
bitter battle between the community and county planners and developers.
Subdivision 8533 may seem insignificant viewed on a larger
scale, yet it represents the many small wetlands that are likely being affected
or filled throughout the country, with little fanfare. Do they matter?
Yes, says the U.S. EPA Region 9’s Mike Monroe. “These small
areas shouldn’t be written off. Because there is so little habitat left, small
areas should really receive more protection. If you add up the cumulative
losses, it’s probably the small areas tucked away that have been damaged the
Regardless of whether wetlands are large, small,
geographically isolated, seasonal, or perennial, the Clean Water Act, under
which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues or denies permits for filling
wetlands, requires developers to avoid, minimize, or mitigate damages to
wetlands—in that order. The term “mitigation,” which came about as an attempt
to achieve former President George Bush Sr.’s stated goal of no net loss of
wetlands, was first used in the National Environmental Policy Act. Monroe says
the idea behind mitigation is to lessen or ameliorate impacts to wetlands
through “on- or off-site efforts to offset impacts from unavoidable filling of
wetlands.” It is the “unavoidable” part that often causes problems, with
developers insisting certain impacts cannot be avoided and environmentalists
arguing that they can. With lots of pressure from environmentalists—and
sometimes lawsuits—many developers end up avoiding more impacts than they
originally thought possible.
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