Originally created 05/06/04

Rebuilding a wetland

Oscar Flite and Amanda Garman spend their afternoons planting trees along the fringe of a former strip mine off Gordon Highway.

So far, 600 seedlings have hit the dirt. By this fall, the count will be more than 5,000. In more ways than one, the gradual restoration of disturbed industrial land is like money in the bank.

"Thousands of years ago, this place was a forested river scar left by the Savannah River," said Gene Eidson, the president of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy. "We're trying to put it back like it was."

The academy, with research scientists such as Mr. Flite and Ms. Garman, is working with the landowner - Merry Land Properties LLC - to establish a wetlands mitigation bank encompassing about 400 mined-out acres.

Mitigation banks, pioneered a decade ago, use the resources of developers to preserve large parcels of affected wetlands.

For example, if a developer's plan to create a shopping center would destroy three acres of wetlands, regulators such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might require the developer to buy and preserve three acres elsewhere.

If dozens of developers pool their resources by purchasing credits in one central mitigation bank, the result creates hundreds - or even thousands - of acres of protected habitat.

"That's what we're doing here," Dr. Eidson said, surveying the meandering rows of cypress, poplar, green ash, maple, water oak, swamp chestnut and other trees.

The seemingly random plantings have a specific strategy, he said. Because river scars are environmentally important groundwater discharge areas, tree plantings are based by species according to the distance from the surface to the water table.

Thus, once restored, the area will mimic the more traditional wetland and woodland habitat lost to mining more than a century ago.

The initial phase of the mitigation bank on the Merry property began two years ago, but took more than two additional years of paperwork and red tape to get organized and permitted by the Corps, said Tennent Houston, managing partner of Merry Land Properties.

The restoration site was known to generations of Augustans as the Sears Fishing Lakes off Nowell Road. It adjoins other Merry lands totaling 3,700 acres.

"This is an area on the outer fringe, but restoring it will help protect more important areas farther in," Dr. Eidson said. Such habitats are important for maintaining clean groundwater, filtering out pollution and providing habitat for important plants and wildlife, including waterfowl.

The cost of mitigation bank credits can vary according to the value of the land being restored. Pine plantation, for example, might warrant only one-fourth credit per acre, while restored wetlands such as those under preparation at Merry Land typically are much more valuable - up to two credits per acre.

Clients of the Phinizy Swamp Mitigation Bank are mostly from Richmond and Columbia counties, with some of its territory extending into Burke and Aiken counties, he said. Credits at the Merry site cost around $2,000.

"So far we've sold a couple hundred credits, mostly involving Department of Transportation road projects," Mr. Houston said. Other clients include developers of commercial properties in the area.

As a mitigation bank, the land is covered under a restricted covenant and protected by a permanent conservation easement, Dr. Eidson said.

In layman's terms, that means the area will be preserved and protected forever.

The Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which already operates the 1,150-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park a few miles away, plans to use the restored area as a teaching laboratory and educational resource.

"Ten years from now, we'll have students out here - as we will next week from Clemson - to see the progress that's being made," he said.

Long-range plans for the site include a classroom, trails and parking for school buses.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

How a Wetland Mitigation Bank Works:

  • Developers whose projects destroy wetlands must preserve similar areas elsewhere to compensate for damage they inflict on the environment.

  • Rather than preserve many small parcels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers licenses "mitigation banks," in which larger parcels of damaged wetlands can be restored and preserved.

  • Developers purchase "credits" in mitigation banks to finance preservation programs and allow property owners to profit from otherwise unproductive land.

  • The Phinizy Swamp Mitigation Bank also will become an educational resource where school groups and others can observe efforts to transform former clay mines into a natural river swamp.

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