Rare wetland raises restoration hopes
ENVIRONMENT: The Fens project could lead the way in replacing
wetlands lost to development.
By Lee Bloomquist
Duluth News Tribune
Published October 26, 2005
ZIM - A vegetable farm once owned by frozen-foods entrepreneur
Jeno Paulucci is becoming the only wetland bank of its
kind in the nation.
In the 1950s and '60s Paulucci grew carrots, celery,
broccoli and mushrooms at his 350-acre Wilderness Valley
Farms tract along St. Louis County Highway 7 in Zim. For
a while, Paulucci had horse manure brought in by train
from Chicago to help the mushrooms grow.
The farm was later used for research on hybrid poplar,
greenhouse gases, berries and sod.
Over the last five years, soil scientists from the University
of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute
have found a modern use for the land -- turning it into
a certified wetland bank.
Scientists have spent frigid winters and hot summers
smoothing the wide-open land, plugging 82 drainage ditches
and transplanting moss from a site in Iron.
The Fens Research Facility is creating the kind of habitat
that developers need to replace wetlands that are filled
during road construction or economic development.
Bordered by a massive swamp to the west and a railroad
track to the east, it's the only wetland bank in the country
to feature a mix of peat bog and wooded swamp. The valuable
terrain can replace sphagnum moss bogs lost to development
acre for acre.
So far, 110 acres have been completed at the Fens site.
Another 132 acres are nearly restored.
Fens was once the name of a railroad siding at the site,
about 50 miles northwest of Duluth.
"The Fens is representative of much of the peat
land in northern Minnesota," said Tom Malterer, NRRI
peat program director. "Its characteristics and its
setting reflect many peat lands. Because of that, the
research being done here can be transferred to other peat
WETLAND MANDATES After Paulucci closed the farm, the
Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board owned the
property until 1986, when it was sold to the NRRI. With
the land, the NRRI responded to property developers' need
for wetland replacement and a mid-1980s mandate by the
federal and state governments that developers replace
wetlands they destroy. "Almost no new industry could
be developed on wetland in the U.S. because they couldn't
get permits to drain them," said Malterer. "Society
changed and made a series of judgments about wetlands."
Plugging the ditches, flattening fields that were once
crowned, adding sulfur to the soil and replanting the
site with native wild mosses turned the Fens site from
an "effectively drained" status into a certified
wetlands bank. NRRI scientists are also reversing what
many early white settlers did, said Malterer. Many settlers
to Northeastern Minnesota dug ditches to drain lands for
farming and agriculture, he said. As demand for wetland
increases, less land in Northeastern Minnesota will remain
available for farm use. "Almost all of the effort
that the settlers did is being turned around now, which
will mean less agriculture." All 350 acres of the
Fens site are already sold. The Minnesota Board of Water
and Soil Research bought the 110-acre parcel for county
and township boards to replace wetlands lost in road construction
projects. The remainder of the site will be used by the
Minnesota Department of Transportation to mitigate wetlands
filled during the recently completed reconstruction of
Highway 53 north of Virginia. "It's good for the
economy," said Malterer. "Good roads are good
for the economy; and by being able to provide mitigation
credits, we are able to have a good economy." It
cost the NRRI about $3,000 to $4,000 an acre to restore
the land. In turn, MnDOT and the water and soil board
will pay NRRI $8,000 an acre. Proceeds will go into a
trust to pay for wetlands restoration and mitigation research.
CRISIS OF CREDITS But a major problem could lie ahead
for other developers. A scarcity of available wetlands
for developers to compensate for wetland loss could become
a large issue for several planned projects in Northeastern
Minnesota. Economic development projects such as PolyMet
Mining Co.'s proposed base and precious metals mine, Excelsior
Energy's coal-gasification plant and Mesabi Nugget will
probably require wetland replacement. With the exception
of about 10 to 20 acres near Duluth, there's no certified
wetlands credits available in Northeastern Minnesota,
said Malterer. "It's a crisis," he said. "Where
will the credits come from?" Tim Peterson, a U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Two Harbors,
said Northeastern Minnesota needs more wetlands for mitigation.
"Up in this area, there isn't too much for banks
at the moment," said Peterson. "Compensatory
mitigation for these projects hasn't been figured out
yet -- they're discussing different options." Replacing
wetlands with the same type of wetland and in the same
watershed is preferred, he said. However, replacing wetlands
with a different type of wetland can also be considered
before looking to a bank for replacement, Peterson said.
PolyMet Mining Co. is studying solutions to replace about
1,200 acres of wetland that could be filled over two decades,
said Warren Hudelson, a PolyMet spokesman. About 700 potential
acres have so far been identified, some of it former agricultural
land between Floodwood and Meadowlands, he said.