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Great Lakes Article:

Forum focuses on saving state's coastal wetlands
By Corydon Ireland
Democrat and Chronicle

New Yorkís Great Lakes coastal wetlands are under increasing pressure from developers and local municipalities need more money, research and cooperation to reverse the trend.

Thatís the broad outline of concerns raised at the 10th annual New York State Wetlands Forum, a two-day gathering that wrapped up Thursday.

Consultants, researchers, regulators and policymakers converged at the Rochester Institute of Technology Inn and Conference Center to discuss the fate of these ecologically vital marshes, which prevent erosion, filter storm runoff and provide wildlife habitat.

"Itís all about clean water, and wetlands are the foundation of that," said biologist Diane C. Kozlowski, who oversees permit activity at the Buffalo regional office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Even tiny marshy areas can play a big ecological role, she said, praising a recent University of Rochester wetland replacement project - just 2.6 acres - that protected a community of chorus frogs.

State law protects wetlands 12.4 acres or larger, as well as a 100-foot buffer zone. Federal law has no size minimum.

New York has 2.5 million acres of wetlands, one-third of them in the Great Lakes basin. But that only represents half of the acreage in pre-settlement times, said Donald Zelasny, Great Lakes programs coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

New York now spends $2.5 million a year to clean up and protect fisheries, which are largely wetlands. The funding helps protect the stateís $3 billion-a-year fishing industry.

There are 21 wetlands-related bills in the state Legislature, said Zelasny, and the state gained about 15,000 acres of wetlands in the last 10 years. But whatís needed most, he said, is "a common vision, a united approach" to saving wetlands, drawing in Great Lakes governors, regulators and municipalities.

The threat to wetlands is one of many "downward pressures" in the Great Lakes region, said Margaret Wooster, a consultant with the Buffalo-based Great Lakes United, an education and advocacy group.

In the last five years, Lake Erie has seen five outbreaks of avian botulism, killing loons and other water fowl and reaching Lake Ontario last year. Thereís a rising number of exotic species in the lakes (162 this year), along with persistent beach closings, fish advisories and smog alerts that signal air pollution sifting into the Great Lakes.

But Wooster said Congress is considering two similar Great Lakes restoration bills, worth $4 billion to $6 billion over five or 10 years, some of it for restoring wetlands.

To get a fair share of that money, she said, counties, cities, towns and conservation groups have to identify - ahead of time - projects worth funding.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency might help, with its 2004 "habitat initiative," said Mario del Vicario, chief of ecosystem issues for the regional EPA office in Manhattan.

A contractor is studying potential project sites in New York and other states, he said, and compiling data on wetlands and other at-risk habitats.

"Thereís still a lot to be done," said del Vicario.

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