Banking on wetlands

Near Craig Lake State Park, Baraga Co.<br />Photo courtesy: Michigan DNR; Wetlands, like this...
Near Craig Lake State Park, Baraga Co.<br />Photo courtesy: Michigan DNR; Wetlands, like this area near Craig Lake State Park in Baraga County, play a key role in the health of Michigan&amp;rsquo;s environment. (WLUC)
Published: May. 26, 2018 at 9:11 AM EDT
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May in Michigan – a time to celebrate warmer weather, greener scenery and the chance to jump back into outdoor pastimes like birding, biking, fishing and camping.

This month also marks another cause for celebration, one that’s vital to the natural resources that make enjoying Michigan’s outdoors possible.

May is American Wetlands Month, when organizations around the country celebrate the importance of wetlands to our water resources, wildlife and way of living.

Areas where land and water meet, also known as swamps, bogs or marshes, wetlands provide habitat for wildlife and recreation opportunities for hunters, birdwatchers and others.

They also play a key role in the health of Michigan’s environment, improving water quality by filtering out pollutants and excess nutrients, replenishing surface and underground drinking water sources, and helping to control flooding by soaking up extra rainwater.

Learn more about wetlands and their value to Michigan’s wildlife, environment and citizens.

Although we now recognize wetlands as a vital resource, that wasn’t always the case.

Over the last 200 years, more than 4 million acres of wetlands in Michigan have been drained – about half of the wetlands in the state before European settlers arrived.

To stem the loss of wetlands, federal law now puts restrictions and conditions on development of wetland property.

Sometimes impacts to wetlands are unavoidable in carrying out other important work, such as farming and public infrastructure projects like building roads.

That’s where a process called wetland mitigation comes in – creating or restoring wetlands to replace the functions of those that will be lost.

“Wetland mitigation ensures that there is no net loss of wetlands,” said Steve Shine, wetlands mitigation bank administrator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “The goal is to replace wetland functions that provide public benefit – fish and wildlife habitat, flood storage, water-quality protection, groundwater recharge.”

Shine explained that mitigation is only considered for a project after wetland impacts have been avoided or minimized.

Complying with wetland mitigation requirements – a condition of many state and federal permits issued – can be challenging.

“Mitigation construction on a per-project basis can be very complicated, expensive and time-consuming, and public infrastructure projects can be delayed or put on hold due to costly mitigation requirements,” said Stacy Hissong, an attorney specializing in drain law and public projects who works closely with the Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance. This organization is partnering with the DNR to restore wetland habitat on public lands to offset unavoidable impacts to existing wetlands.

Wetland mitigation banking helps make the whole process easier.

New wetland areas – or “banks” – are established before development or other projects impact existing wetland areas. Each new acre in an approved wetland mitigation bank represents a bank “credit” – sold to permit holders to satisfy mitigation requirements associated with the permit.

“In the past, Michigan municipalities and farmers had few opportunities to utilize wetland mitigation bank credits because their only option was to purchase privately owned credits on the open market. Unfortunately, these private bank credits are not available in some areas of the state, and they can be cost-prohibitive,” Hissong said.

The Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance offers affordable wetland mitigation bank credit opportunities to Michigan municipalities, as well as agricultural producers and blueberry growers.

The nonprofit organization is using grant funds from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the DNR to create high-functioning, professionally managed and maintained wetland mitigation banks, encouraging long-term sustainability, high water quality and biologically diverse ecosystems.

“Buying credits offsets the impact to wetlands,” Shine said. “The restored wetland area has to be located in the same watershed as the impacted wetland, and 1.5 times the size of the impacted area.”

The public-private partnership between the Alliance and the DNR also helps to make compliance with strict wetland mitigation requirements less complicated, less expensive and less time-consuming for Michigan municipalities.

“The DNR will maintain ownership of the land and maintain the wetland mitigation banks in perpetuity, which means that municipalities, agricultural producers and blueberry growers can rest assured that their wetland mitigation requirements have been properly fulfilled,” Hissong said. “By using state-owned lands, we’re able to save the purchase price of the bank sites. In this way, the benefit of the public-private partnership between the DNR and the Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance is passed on to the taxpayer in the form of substantial savings.”

Hissong said that private bank credits cost up to $100,000 per acre credit, but with the DNR’s assistance, the Alliance is able to offer a more affordable cost of up to $30,000 per acre credit for those who need to buy wetland mitigation bank credits.

"We are so glad to be a part of the partnership with DNR. It provides a great environmental enhancement while giving our taxpayers up to a $70,000 savings on wetland credits,” said David Thompson, president of the Alliance’s board of directors. “There isn't a downside to this. It just makes sense."

Construction is set to begin soon on four new wetland mitigation banks on DNR-managed lands at Allegan State Game Area in Allegan County (52.4 acres), Grand River State Game Area in Ionia County (21.7 acres), Gratiot-Saginaw State Game Area in Gratiot County at (71.6 acres) and Petersburg State Game Area in Monroe County (50 acres).

“Each of the sites has different land features, which will create wetlands that are also unique,” Shine said. “We are trying to achieve as much open water as the rules allow us to establish, which is not to exceed 15 percent. The balance of the sites is a blend of wet meadow, emergent wetland and scrub shrub wetlands. The variety of wetland types creates habitat for a broad range of wildlife.”

Establishing wetland mitigation bank sites across the state will expedite municipal road, bridge and other infrastructure projects and benefit Michigan’s environment, while restoring wetlands on state-owned land will enhance recreational opportunities for the public.

“Michigan has world-class waterfowl hunting opportunities because of the abundance, the quality and the diversity of the wetlands we have in our state,” said Barb Avers, DNR waterfowl and wetlands specialist.

“From coastal wetlands, to marshes, to fens (low and marshy or frequently flooded areas), swamps and bogs (wet, muddy ground), Michigan has a lot of important wetland habitat to offer.”

This same wetland habitat that provides excellent hunting locations also attracts a variety of birds that wildlife watchers enjoy.

“Every birder knows that wetlands have the best diversity of bird species. In many different seasons, you can find waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, hawks, eagles, wrens, blackbirds, cranes, swallows and so much more,” said Holly Vaughn, DNR wildlife communications coordinator. “We have some really exceptional birdwatching opportunities in Michigan because of our outstanding wetlands and the important benefits that they provide to wildlife – feeding, nesting and migration stopover habitat.”

The recreational opportunities wetlands provide are not limited to hunting and birding.

“Wetlands offer opportunities for great wildlife photography with their diversity of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insect life,” Vaughn said. “A quiet paddle around wetlands is another great way to pass the day. In a canoe or kayak, you might sneak up on a family of beavers or paddle next to a turtle catching its breath on the surface. You can even throw in a line and see if you can catch some dinner while floating around.”

Wetlands are valuable for so many reasons, it’s easy to see why we devote a whole month to celebrating them, and wetlands banking is a mechanism that will help us ensure future generations will be able to enjoy them.

Learn more about how the DNR manages wetlands on public land.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories

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