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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2006 Issue

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

A Question of Mitigation 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 cookie-cutter subdivisions.

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 most.”

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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