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When Wetland Restoration Fails

Keith Bowers
President, Biohabitats, Inc.

It is about time we begin speaking out on the failures of wetland restoration as it relates to mitigation. For the past 15 years I have been involved in the design and construction of tidal and non-tidal wetland mitigation projects throughout the east coast and mid-west and have seen firsthand the “pond” phenomenon that Joy Zelder affectionately refers to as the ecological equivalent of a cookie cutter suburb of the contemporary landscape.

Recently I was reviewing plans for a tidal wetland restoration project that completely missed the mark regarding tidal ranges. If the project were to move forward the result would be an expanse of mudflats with a sea of open water. More commonly I encounter non-tidal wetland mitigation projects that end up as ponds with, maybe, a vegetated fringe around the edge. While Zelder refers to these “wetlands” as the ecological equivalent of a fast food chain, I refer to them as a salad bowl without any salad. What is wrong here? I have three observations.

First, permit applicants required to restore wetlands as mitigation for unavoidable impacts often do so kicking and screaming, reluctant at best and completely unwilling at worst to spend the money required to do the job right. Site selection, collection of adequate reference data and monitoring are some of the elements that typically suffer from this lack of funding.

Second, regulatory agencies often do not enforce performance standards for successfully completing the mitigation requirements. This is typically due to underfunding, political pressures, lack of expertise or interest. In fact, rarely are performance standards even mandated. Once permit applicants (and consultants) become aware of this lack of attentiveness, design and implementation tend to take the least expensive and easiest route to compliance. For information on a prescribed standard, see the Society for Ecological Restoration International’s SER Primer (www.ser.org)

Third, the more you learn about the complexities of wetlands and ecological restoration the less you realize you know. It truly takes a collaborative team effort of individuals trained in myriad of scientific disciplines and engineering design. I could no sooner carry out a wetland restoration project by myself then could a civil engineer or PhD soil scientist acting alone. Why is it we require that only a licensed civil engineer be allowed to design a bridge yet anyone can design a wetland restoration project? Aren’t wetlands in fact much more complex and arguably much more important to our overall health, welfare and the biological diversity of our planet?

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