by Dorothee Kellinghusen, staff writer
Warren Wilson College has the opportunity to become a wetland mitigation bank. This is not your typical kind of bank, however.
The process to becoming a mitigation bank involves three parties: a developer, a restoration company and a land owner. The developer, who is damaging or destroying a biological ecosystem for construction, is required by law to restore an area of land equal in size to the damaged land. Usually, the developer does not have another piece of land that qualifies for mitigation and therefore has to buy credits from a mitigation bank. The largest user of mitigation banking is the Department of Transportation (DOT) which is responsible for developing roadways and the like, not establishing ecosystems.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines a mitigation bank as “a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that has been restored, established, enhanced, or (in certain circumstances) preserved for the purpose of providing compensation for unavoidable impacts to aquatic resources.”
Warren Wilson College is thinking about offering some of its land for restoration and becoming a mitigation bank. Currently, the college is in the process of evaluating the pros and cons. Staff and faculty members are considering three components when thinking about this deal: the educational value, the benefit for the environment and the financial outcome.
If the college decides to have a mitigation bank on campus, it would be an irreversible deal. This is a particularly weighty decision for the college because if a land owner agrees to become a mitigation bank, according to the Clean Water Act, nothing can ever be changed on this particular piece of property. No construction or any other impact on the ecosystem is possible.
However, the property can still be used if no ecological harm is done to the land. The swim pond behind the pavilion on campus is currently being considered as a potential area to be restored. Boats would not be allowed to be on the swim pond, but swimmers would be.
The idea to have a mitigation bank on campus began in 2002, biology professor Paul Bartels and Warren Wilson alumnus Neil Thomas initiated the idea to become a wetland mitigation bank. Thomas lives in Asheville and offers GIS (Geographic Information Systems) services. He started to work with Applied Ecological Services (AES), a company, based in Wisconsin, that specializes in ecological restoration. The head of the company, Steve Apfelbaum, also has a long time connection with Warren Wilson: He has been involved in some projects, had students as interns and also shared his expertise as a guest speaker, said Bartels.
Thomas, Apfelbaum and Bartels identified possible areas on campus and brought their results before the Long Range Planning Committee, headed by Dean of Work Ian Robertson. The committee gave their consent to three areas that could benefit from the program. Next, the college received the necessary permit from the State of North Carolina to proceed. Then, a contract was signed with AES to do the restoration of the wetland areas.
“Unfortunately,” said Bartels, “this is where the process ended, because the developer’s funding broke down. Since then, this idea sat on a shelf.”
For years nobody talked about the possibility of a mitigation bank until recently, when the college heard about the Department of Transportation’s need for mitigation banks. The excitement rose again, with the vision of opportunities like a beautiful natural swim pond.
The science department has no doubt about the educational and ecological value for the identified areas. At the top of the list is the ditch with runoff water along Jensen Trail that drains into the swim pond and continues to drain into the pig pond and finally into the Swannanoa River. This ditch allows fast running water to carry sedimentation into the Swannanoa. The goal is to create a stream that slows down the flow. Other areas considered for ecological enhancement are the Alexander Branch and Forbates on the other side of the Swannanoa River.
Faculty and staff already have a pool full of ideas and plans describing how to implement the restoration process into student work and curriculum activities. A mitigation bank on campus would provide hands-on learning to the wetland conservation class offered by Mark Brenner and JJ Apodaca in the spring.
Again, the Long Range Planning Committee passed the recommendation along to the administration office to the new interim Vice President for Administration and Finance, Alan Russell, who has the authority to make the final decision. Robertson acknowledges that it is a big commitment to give away land on campus for a terminal purpose.
Russell also has to evaluate the financial outcome for the college. The price for the credit per area is set by the State. But between the developer and the land owner is the restoration company who gets a share of the budget. Negotiable is the price for the work of the company and thus the share of the profit. So far, AES has been the only company the college considered for the restoration process. According to Russell, it is his job to compare prices and services and to work out a contract in the best interest of the college. An important aspect is to ensure that the developer who uses credits from Warren Wilson as a wetland mitigation bank is in compliance with the college’s principles and values.
Russell is aware of the ecological and educational benefits for the college. He also knows that there is competition with other landowners who have an interest in this money-making deal. It is a time-sensitive issue, said Bartels, and he wants the college to be “first in line.” However, Russell and Robertson see the need to get more background information before a contract is signed. After all, it is Russell’s responsibility to come to a decision “in a professional way for the best interest of the college as a whole,” he said. And that takes some time.