County Banks on Wetlands Success of New Environmental Regulations May Hinge on Increasingly Popular Process

Article excerpt

Byline: Dave Orrick Daily Herald Staff Writer

As a fourth-generation earth-moving contractor, John Ryan was raised on cogs and gears, not capital and granola.

But by 1994, the Janesville, Wis.-native had traded in his stake in Ryan Inc. for a career in a budding speculative field best described as ecological entrepreneurism.

Ryan is a "wetland banker." He negotiates, trades, insures, hedges the market and issues credits on his commodity: wetlands.

In its simplest form, when a developer wants to disturb, excavate, fill or destroy a small wetland, he often can legally do so by paying a wetland banker to recreate a wetland of equal or greater size elsewhere.

An uncommon practice, there are basically only two wetland banks operating in Lake County - Ryan's in Libertyville and one run by Wetlands Research Inc. in Wadsworth - and only a dozen in the Chicago area.

The young practice, with roots in Lake County, is not without its critics. However, wetland banking is likely to become a crucial field in Lake County's fight to preserve its biological diversity and cherished wetlands without imposing on landowners' rights.

"I do think that there's going to be pressure now to create more wetland mitigation banks," said Joe Hmieleski, a wetland specialist for the county's stormwater management commission.

Under new regulations that went into effect this month, the panel will regulate such banks and the county's estimated 7,000 acres of isolated wetlands - wetlands not connected to navigable waters.

"We have been approached by at least three different groups for SMC-approved banks already," Hmieleski said. "I think this will result in a small rush."

Lake County's new regulations are the first approved in the state to protect isolated wetlands since January, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling left them unprotected.

Those regulations provide powerful incentives for developers to use wetland banks. They are incentives some believe will ensure long-term survival of the county's rare ecology; others fear they will provide an easy way for developers to pave over the environment.

The whole point is to take out of the hands of brick-and-mortar builders the daunting task of recreating nature that has been damaged by development.

Instead, banking is supposed to place that task into the hands of qualified restorationists who'll see the process through on larger sites that insulate wildlife from the perils of civilization.

"It works well," Hmieleski said. "What you end up with is a larger-scale, highly functioning wetland. And in ecology, scale can be a very big deal."

Others disagree.

"It's another handy-dandy tool in the developer's pouch," said John Reindl, village administrator for Lake Barrington and a former veteran of the county board. "It takes a piece of land that has been dubbed as non-developable and affords the opportunity for developers to make a buck on it."

Mitigating mitigation

Reindl's sentiments echo those of some environmentalists who have been frustrated by what they say is a gradual decline of natural resources in the face of growth.

Policies resulting from the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 forced developers who damage or destroy wetlands to replace them, a process euphemistically known as "mitigation."

To comply with stormwater regulations, many developers dug pits on the edge of their properties to hold rainwater and substitute for the marshy wetlands on which homes and businesses were built.

The practice, known as on-site mitigation, still occurs today. Although it generally satisfies the law, many contend it shortchanges the environment.

A 1996 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chicago field office in Barrington found only 4 percent of sites throughout the six-county region could be considered an ecological success. …