Wetlands banks aim to help economy, environment

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VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — A new way to stop construction from overwhelming the state's wetlands is benefiting both the environment and the economy.

Wetlands mitigation banks are a way to make up for natural habitat that's buried or destroyed by construction, The Vancouver Columbian reported (http://is.gd/3WtAsQ ) in Sunday's newspaper.

Many large construction projects need to navigate a complicated regulatory maze when building near wetlands. They often end up building and maintaining manmade wetlands in the area. But wetlands banks offer another alternative.

Mitigation banks usually involve consolidating small wetland mitigation projects into larger, more "ecologically valuable" sites, according to the Washington Department of Ecology website. Such consolidation encourages greater habitat diversity and helps create more sustainable systems. Mitigation banks also offer a better chance of success because they're up and running before damage can occur at wetlands near construction sites, the site says.

They're gaining favor among state regulators, builders and public agencies as new projects continue to encroach on sensitive natural areas.

Builders like wetland banks for the added flexibility they offer new projects. State ecology officials like them for their natural benefit, often showing better results than a smaller wetland squeezed into a construction site somewhere.

When Woodland Public Schools made plans for a new high school in the city's north end, it ran into a hurdle that many builders know well: There were wetlands on the site, and no getting around them.

So Woodland looked elsewhere for help — about 25 miles to the south. The district reserved credits from the Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank, essentially planning to buy a piece of a ready-made wetland project already established near the Port of Vancouver. Woodland Superintendent Michael Green called the option a "win-win for everybody involved."

"It really takes creation of the wetlands off of our plate," Green said.

Victor Woodward, whose company built and maintains the Columbia River bank, expects that to happen more often as Southwest Washington continues to grow and develop. That's what made the region a prime candidate for a wetland bank in the first place, he said.

"Everywhere you turned, there were wetlands," Woodward said. "Everything was just sort of stuck."

The Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank, built on a former agricultural property owned by the Port of Vancouver, isn't the only such site in Clark County. Woodward and his son, Zachary, have a second bank in the works on the East Fork of the Lewis River, and another mitigation project under way in Battle Ground. Each operates as its own entity, under their Kirkland-based company Habitat Banc NW.

The first credits on the 154-acre Columbia River bank became available last year. Of the approximately 10.5 credits released so far, about four have been purchased. Each credit is good for about one acre of wetland mitigation. By the time it's fully operational, the bank will offer 54 total credits to local developers.

Customers so far include the port, the city of Vancouver and BNSF Railway, securing credits to make up for wetlands impacted by various projects. Woodland Public Schools has reserved another four credits for its new high school, but hasn't finalized the purchase, according to Green.

In the past, many wetland mitigation efforts happened on-site, and still do. If a project impacted natural wetlands, a manmade substitute might be created elsewhere in the same construction area. But that doesn't always translate into an ideal outcome, Woodward said. More recently, the use of banks has been encouraged to avoid the "backyard, parking lot-type projects that were occurring," he said.

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Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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