Banking on wetlands is dubious business Replacement credits: Marshlands created for development losses may not hold as much value.

July 07, 1998

IT SOUNDS like a good idea: Allow developers to pay into a fund to create wetlands when a construction site is unsuitable for restoring the valuable natural feature.

Larger marshes could be built elsewhere by experts concerned with ecology and not with demands for housing, shopping centers, roads and utility lines.

The business of creating these replacement wetlands is booming, with wetlands "banks" selling pieces of their soggy creations (or credits) to construction firms that need marsh replacements. More than 100 banks exist nationwide; more are coming.

While there is much praise for the concept of creating useful marshes, of the right size and in the right places, the wetlands banking system is still too new to measure by these goals.

Reflooding an old pasture that was formerly drained to raise crops may not provide as much environmental value as the marshlands destroyed by builders.

Consider 20 projects in different locations. Each destroys a half-acre of wetlands. Each of those wetlands plays an integral role in the ecology of that land parcel: water, runoff filtering, flood control, animal and plant habitat. Eliminating these marshlands can set off a major disturbance in the ecology. Their true value cannot be replaced by flooding a distant 10-acre meadow in a wetlands bank and calling it a fair exchange.

The focus of this entrepreneurial marsh-building is on making money. Ecological quality -- and not just how many game ducks live there -- is not paramount.

Part of the problem is the poor job done by builders to replace wetlands near their construction sites. But instead of enforcing standards on these inadequate on-site mitigation marshes, lawmakers and bureaucrats seem to favor the simpler option of artificial swamps elsewhere.

Stronger protections, not more wetlands banks, are needed.

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