Murky Deal

Fifteen years ago, with suburban sprawl continuing to eat away at the country's remaining wetlands, an apparent win-win compromise emerged: Developers would be permitted to pave over sensitive wetlands to build a roadway or housing subdivision, as long as they agreed to build or restore a bigger marsh somewhere in the same area. This exchange, which became known as wetland mitigation, has been an increasingly popular practice in recent years, but one that many ecologists have all along considered a dubious trade-off.

Now a national study, released over the summer, has confirmed the ecologists' worst suspicions--that the deal greatly benefits developers over nature. The report from the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences found that the country's wetland policy standard--which is no net loss of wetlands, a goal endorsed by President George Bush in 1989--is not being met. From 1993 to 2000, some 24,000 acres of wetlands were filled in with the understanding that 42,000 compensatory acres would be constructed. On the books, this looked like a 78 percent gain for wetlands. Yet the NRC panel found significant lapses. In Indiana only 62 percent of new wetlands were built; 20 percent were incomplete, with 14 percent never attempted. In Florida, only about half of the required wetlands were built.

Panel investigators point to several reasons for the policy's failure, chief among them a lack of oversight. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the main agency charged with regulating mitigation projects, but the Corps rarely conducts compliance inspections. Perhaps the biggest shortcoming, however, is the limitation of science itself, such as the inability to fix or design new wetlands that can adequately replace the ecological diversity of those that were destroyed. "We simply don't know how to restore or construct all types of wetlands," says Joy Zedler, a restoration ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, who chaired the study. "Re-creating the complex chemistry of bogs and fens is beyond us."

Zedler personally saw two mitigation projects fail in the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, in San Diego Bay. The aim was to establish habitat for the endangered light-footed clapper rail. But dredge spoils left on the site made the soil too sandy to retain nitrogen. As a result, the California cordgrass never grew tall enough to provide nesting sites. Although fertilizing helped in the short run, it ultimately shifted the plant community away from cordgrass altogether. "We're very good at digging holes in the ground and calling that a mitigation wetland," says Carol Johnston, a University of Minnesota wetland ecologist.

Meanwhile, the practice of mitigation continues apace, and oversight laws are being relaxed even more. Last January the Supreme Court effectively turned the regulation of isolated wetlands over to the states, where mitigation is popular. And in August the Corps began rolling back recent wetlands-friendly changes to its nationwide permit program. "We become enablers of the destruction of natural wetlands if we claim that we can create or restore wetlands that are just as good as natural wetlands," says Zedler.

--Erik Ness


Sustainable Cuisine
Forget the Shark at Grand Canyon

You can view the exquisite beauty of the Grand Canyon from the elegant restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel, but don't expect to see some of your favorite fish--including Chilean sea bass, bluefin tuna, Atlantic swordfish, or shark--on the menu. You're not alone, though, as millions of other diners at national park restaurants overseen by Amfac Parks & Resorts will face limited seafood choices in response to concerns about overfishing.

Amfac operates restaurants in many popular destinations, including Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Everglades, Yellowstone, and Zion national parks. After learning that the Chef's Collaborative--a national organization of chefs--was working to educate the public about the consequences of overfishing, the concessionaire banned those four species from all its restaurants. Not content to stop there, Amfac consulted Audubon's Living Oceans Seafood Guide, a version of which first appeared in Audubon (see "The Audubon Guide to Seafood," May-June 1998), and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch protocol to determine which species were more in line with sustainable cuisine.

For example, the restaurants currently offer only more abundant species, such as rainbow trout, halibut, farmed freshwater catfish, tilapia, albacore tuna, Dungeness crab, mahi-mahi, and wild Alaskan salmon. "I hope we're helping to lead the charge and 'greening up' our supply chain as well," says Chris Lane, director of environmental programs for Amfac.

At Grand Canyon National Park, executive chef Joe Nobile says that the ban is only logical for national park restaurants, which he believes should demonstrate environmental sensitivity. Along that line, Nobile's restaurants previously decided to stop serving wild game, such as buffalo or venison. "We were already going down that road on a larger scale," the chef says. "And not because these things [buffalo and venison] were endangered, but because we're in a national park, the sensitivity was already there."

Mercedes Lee, editor of the Audubon Society's Seafood Lover's Almanac, applauds the move. "It's proof-positive that once consumers, including wholesale consumers like Amfac, realize that there are ecological consequences behind our seafoods, they'll respond positively by choosing seafoods that are doing better," she says. "The ocean is a storehouse of choices, and there are alternative species out there that are better managed and more abundant." For more information on Audubon's Living Oceans program, call 888-397-6649.

--Kurt Repanshek



Wasting Away

It's taken 40 years, but the Disposable Age may finally be turning a corner. In the 1990s the average American's garbage output finally began to decrease (dropping to 4.46 pounds a day in 1998) after a 70 percent rise between 1960 and 1990 (from 2.7 pounds a day to 4.6 pounds a day, despite a tripling of recycling and composting). Much of the three-decade rise could be traced to the use of plastic, which increased nearly 50-fold in the period; the use of almost every other waste material doubled in the same time. The decrease can be attributed to the reduction of packaging by manufacturers and to the increased composting of yard waste by towns.

--Joshua Malbin

© 2001  NASI

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A River Runs Wild, Again

The lower Colorado River is in such sorry shape--with four huge dams and countless water diversions--that even many environmentalists consider it a lost cause. But don't tell that to the Colorado River Indian tribes. In the past five years members of the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Navajo, and Hopi tribes have planted native trees and shrubs on about 400 acres of reservation land along the river in southwestern Arizona. Today this small stretch of the Colorado is once again brimming with life. Tribal council member Dennis Patch says the number of bird species in the area has increased fivefold, and the endangered Yuma clapper rail has been sighted regularly. "Now," says Patch, "we can show the kids what it was like when things were much wilder along the river."

--Michelle Nijhuis


Disturbing the Peace

Ray Petersen, who works for the Vancouver police department, wasn't sure how to respond to a duck that marched up to him and nipped at his trousers. "I had just gotten out of my patrol car and the duck came running straight at me," says Petersen. "All I could think was, what a weird duck." The officer shoved the bird away, but it persisted, quacking frantically and circling a nearby storm grate. Curious, Petersen followed the duck--and when he peered into the grate, he saw eight stranded ducklings. Petersen and three colleagues rescued the ducklings with a tow truck (to lift the heavy grate) and a vegetable strainer. Once reunited, the duck family waddled to a nearby creek and swam away. "People don't think of birds as smart animals," Petersen says admiringly, "but that was one smart duck."

--Lauren Morello


Avian Flakes

At first, scientists at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology didn't know what to make of reports of blue jays hammering at the sides of houses. But observant homeowners helped solve the mystery: In winter, blue jays have been seen pecking at light-colored house paint and then flying to the ground to eat the fallen chips. According to the lab's publication Birdscope, blue jays, for unknown reasons, seem to need more calcium than other songbirds, and they find it in the calcium carbonate contained in paint. Scientists speculate that in the Northeast, which is plagued by acid rain (and naturally low levels of calcium), the soil has lost much of its calcium, causing the jays to make up the dietary deficit with house paint. To protect their homes, residents have started placing calcium-rich eggshells in their bird feeders. So far the blue jays seem to prefer the eggshells to the paint chips.

--Frank Graham Jr.