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Returning to our ecological roots
State and federal programs are helping restore Hoosier wetlands.

By Kevin Kilbane
The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
11/12/03


Hundreds of white gulls bob on the water like foam on the crest of waves. More of the birds hunker down against the wind on a narrow peninsula jutting into the shallow marsh.

On the other side of the wetland, a great blue heron looks for lunch as it wades along the shoreline. The site along Engle Road, just west of Smith Road, also has attracted bald eagles and other rare birds.

Just a frequently soggy field five years ago, the land has been turned into a teeming ecosystem through a mitigation project involving the National Serv-All landfill. The project grew out of a new emphasis statewide and nationally on preserving and restoring wetlands.

"Serv-All likes to do these kinds of projects," says Bob Walls, the company's local general manager. "It is good for the community and good public relations for the company."

In the last 15 years, more than 45,000 acres in Indiana have been preserved or restored as wetlands. These marshes, swamps and bogs not only provide important habitat for wildlife of all types. They also act as natural filters to keep soil and pollutants from reaching streams and lakes. Wetlands also allow water to percolate down to recharge underground water resources.

Officials at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimate 5.6 million acres of wetlands dotted the state when pioneer settlement began around 1780. The most recent survey, which was done in the mid-1980s, estimated about 813,000 acres of wetlands remain, a loss of 85 percent.

Conservation officials and scientists don't know whether restoration programs have increased total wetland acres, says Jim Ray, DNR wetlands coordinator.

"We're losing some and gaining some," Ray explains. "I don't think there is anyone who can tell you if we are ahead or behind in that game."

Government programs have been the catalysts for restoring or preserving many wetlands. At the state level, the DNR and Department of Environmental Management get most actively involved. Federal efforts are led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Army Corps of Engineers.

In the case of National Serv-All and the Engle Road wetland, the company wanted to expand on about 160 acres south of its present landfill on Smith Road. The project would destroy a couple of acres of existing wetlands on the expansion site, Walls says.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) granted permission for National Serv-All to expand. As one condition of approval, Serv-All agreed to build the 15-acre wetland off Engle Road. The site lies just north of the existing landfill.

"It was a good fit," Walls says. "It was sort of a swampy area anyway."

Depending on the type of habitat, IDEM requires a company or individual to restore an area two to four times larger than the natural area being destroyed, says James Robb, environmental manager for IDEM's Water Quality Standards division.

The agency has 345 mitigation sites statewide, Robb says. About 215 have been constructed.

Serv-All has spent more than $70,000 on its wetland mitigation project, Walls said. The effort began about five years ago with initial earth work. The company then let the wetland grow in on its own before planting additional trees, shrubs and grasses in the last two years.

So far, the project has been a great success for birds and bird-watchers.

A pair of bald eagles hung around the wetland for a week in May, says Jim Haw, field-trip coordinator for the local Stockbridge Audubon Society. Birders have reported seeing an eagle at the wetland off and on in the succeeding months.

The tall grasses, shallow water and muddy shore also have attracted some birds not often seen in this area, Haw says.

Double-crested cormorants camped out at the wetland all summer, he says. Great egrets, a large, white wading bird, became a frequent sight there late this summer. Birders once spied 37 of the majestic birds resting or stalking snacks in the shallows.

A black-crowned night heron visited the wetland in September, Haw says. The short, stocky birds are seen only a few times a year in northeast Indiana.

Last year, a piping plover also stopped at the wetland. An endangered species, piping plovers nest on the sandy beaches of the Great Lakes and Atlantic states, as well as around pothole wetlands in western prairies.

Birders had sighted only one or two piping plovers in northeast Indiana in the last 30 years, Haw says.

In the future, National Serv-All hopes to make the wetland even more accommodating for birds and for people who love to watch them.

The company plans to add some nesting boxes for water birds, Walls says. He also would like to construct an observation deck that would give bird watchers a better view of the wetland.

The site then may become even more of a haven for birds and birders than it is now.


Agencies that will help
What: The following agencies offer programs to help landowners conserve or restore wetlands:

* Natural Resources Conservation Service: The agency's Wetland Reserve Program pays landowners to create wetlands on historically damp land. For a restoration only, NRCS pays 75 percent of the cost. If the landowner agrees to leave the site a wetland for at least 30 years, the program pays 75 percent of installation costs and a one-time bonus of up to $1,500 per acre for land in the project. When the landowner agrees to leave the land a wetland in perpetuity, NRCS pays all installation costs and a one-time bonus of up to $2,000 per acre. Funding is limited, so the NRCS has to pick and choose the projects it will do. For information, call the NRCS office in your county. In Allen County, call 484-5848, Ext. 110.

* U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The agency's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program offers technical assistance in designing and installing a new wetland or restoring one that has been drained. The program also pays up to $1,000 per acre of a project's cost, which typically runs $500-$1,000 per acre. Partners in the program are the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. For information, call 1-812-334-4261, Ext. 212, or go to partners.fws.gov on the Web.

* Indiana Department of Environmental Management: Companies or landowners who want to alter or build on an existing wetland must seek permission from IDEM. If IDEM approves the new project, the landowner typically must agree to restore or build wetlands at least twice as large as the area destroyed. For information, call 1-317-233-8802.

Sources: Natural Resources Conservation Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Indiana Department of Environmental Management

An invitation to Mother Nature
When Kris Bachmann gazes out the kitchen and family-room windows of his home, he never knows what wildlife he will see.

A fox, raccoons, deer, ducks, geese, red-wing blackbirds, pheasants, skunks and opossums all have become regular visitors since Bachmann and his wife, Sara, had a low spot on their property converted to a wetland.

"We are in this area where there is very little land left for the animals," Kris Bachmann says.

The Bachmanns installed the wetland with help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in one of the state and federal government programs designed to encourage restoration and preservation of wetlands.

Most private landowners who install a wetland do so to attract more wildlife to their property, says Alger VanHoey, an area district wildlife biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. VanHoey serves DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben and Whitley counties.

"On an acre-per-acre basis, nothing provides as much diversity in species as a wetland," VanHoey says.

The variety is amazing, says Craig Goode of Fort Wayne, who had a wetland installed on about 12 acres of the farm ground his family owns near U.S. 27 and Hoagland Road. Frequent sightings include waterfowl, shore birds, deer and coyote.

"I'll go out there in the morning and see what I can see," Goode says. "It's pretty neat. Peaceful."

The Bachmanns and Goode both worked through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to have their wetland installed. Partners in the program include the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the wildlife groups Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service offers the Wetland Reserve Program, which also has been popular with landowners.

Each program offers landowners engineering expertise to design the wetland, said Jeff Kiefer, Indiana private lands coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The sponsoring agency also pays a portion of the cost, added Kiefer, who is based in Bloomington.

In the last 15 years, Kiefer estimates his agency has worked on or completed 1,500 wetland projects statewide totaling 10,000 acres.

The Bachmanns believe their investment has yielded a solid return.

The Fish and Wildlife Service paid about $1,200 toward the project, which included cutting farm drain tiles and building an earthen dam to hold water. The Bachmanns paid $1,800 for their share of the work. They also spent about $1,200 to plant more than 4,000 trees and shrubs around their 31-acre property off Devall Road, north of Leo-Cedarville.

The couple agreed to keep the land as a wetland for at least 10 years. But Kris Bachmann says they have no plans to ever take it out.

"I just like seeing all the things out there," he says. "We have deer all over the place."

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