Sierran Masthead

Proposed Refuge, Mitigation Banking in Wetlands News

by Susan Thomas, Wetlands Project Director

Proposed Wildlife Refuge

The proposed Grand Kankakee Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is under evaluation following a public comment period. William Hartwig, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director, was briefed by his staff on public responses to the refuge's draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and on a strategy for moving forward to finalize the EA.

If Hartwig signs off on a "Finding of No Significant Impact," he would be able to release the final EA early in 1999‹which in effect would establish the refuge. The next step would be for the Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate the 12- to18-month process of developing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), which outlines specific objectives for land acquisition and management.

In particular, the "Focus Areas" identified in the draft EA as conceptual frameworks will be further delineated through landowner contact and site-specific evaluations of soils and hydrology. This planning process will include numerous opportunities for public input, and Sierrans in northwest Indiana need to be involved. Congressional funding for the initial CCP objectives would be requested by October 2000 for fiscal year 2001. Wetland Mitigation

The Wetlands Project gave a presentation at a mitigation banking conference in Chesterton. Mitigation banking is the restoration, creation, enhancement, or preservation of wetlands. Mitigation banking is conducted for the purpose of generating credits that can be sold to offset future permitted wetland impacts. The conference, sponsored by the Save the Dunes Council, was attended by over 60 citizens, regulatory staff, developers, and mitigation bankers who debated the potential pros and cons of banking.

I discussed the Sierra Club's concerns with mitigation and outlined several recommendations on mitigation banking if regulators approve it for Indiana. Foremost among these recommendations is that banking should only proceed within the context of existing watershed or ecosystem planning.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has released its draft guidance on banking for Indiana. This document was developed in response to IDEM's concerns with the Army Corps of Engineers' interagency banking agreement, which was issued in August 1997 and to which IDEM is not a signatory. The Wetlands Project provided comments to IDEM on its draft. IDEM is now proposing to modify the Corps' agreement rather than develop a separate document. Sierrans need to contact IDEM and the Corps to insist that there be an explicit role for public oversight in all phases of banking, including individual bank prospectuses, charters ("instruments"), and monitoring reports! Contact the Wetlands Project for more information.

Meanwhile, the preliminary results of IDEM's two-year study of mitigation success in Indiana indicate that a very small percentage of mitigation projects required under IDEM's water quality certifications are successfully completed and considered functioning wetlands. The Wetlands Project is proceeding with its review of mitigation that focuses on permanent protection for these wetlands through deed restrictions and conservation easements.

Nationwide Permits

As part of the reauthorization of its general wetland permitting program ("nationwides"), the Army Corps agreed to terminate NWP 26‹the worst of these wetland destruction permits. The Army Corps is to replace NWP 26 with a set of activity-specific permits.

In October, the Corps issued its most recent proposal for replacement permits, which was a dramatic improvement over a previous proposal due in large part to unprecedented public response and input from the Clinton Administration. For example, the current proposal excludes the use of the new NWPs in the 100-year floodplain.

The Wetlands Project commented on each draft as well as on the regional conditions proposed by the Louisville and Detroit Corps districts. The regional conditioning process allows us to place restrictions on how NWPs can be used in Indiana (for example, avoiding certain water bodies and strengthening mitigation requirements).

Despite the improvements, the Corps' current proposal still allows for unacceptable levels of wetland destruction. For example, "NWP A" allows for fills of up to three acres of wetlands for any residential, commercial, or institutional development. After the final language is established, states have 60 days beginning March 6, 1999, to grant, deny, or condition water quality certification for each of the new permits.

Sierrans need to contact IDEM and insist that it deny certification for any permit that causes more than a minimal individual or cumulative adverse impact to Indiana's wetlands! Contact the project office for details.

Other Issues

For several months, IDEM has been conducting an overdue triennial review of its water quality standards. Part of this process included incorporating wetland standards as directed by the EPA.

These standards need to include a wetland definition, designated uses, narrative criteria, and antidegradation procedures. Due to internal disputes and external pressure from legislative and industry groups, IDEM decided to separate wetland standards from the rest of the triennial review, a move opposed by several environmental groups including the Sierra Club. Previous meetings have been dominated by industry representatives. We need Sierrans to participate on the external wetlands workgroup that IDEM will be convening in December or January! Without your help, Indiana won't get the strong wetlands protection standards that it needs!

The Wetlands Project is continuing to work with IDEM and the Isaak Walton League to develop an Adopt a Wetland program for Indiana. Sierrans, especially those in northwest Indiana, are encouraged to get involved in this effort to protect Indiana's valuable wetlands. Contact the project office for more information.


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Winter 1998-1999