Bogged down in wetlandsby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The owners of a proposed copper and nickel mine are scouring the state for a place to build wetlands. PolyMet Mining will need to replace more than 1,000 acres of wetlands it expects to fill for a mining operation near Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet's plans worry some St. Louis County residents. A leading conservationist thinks he has a better idea, but not everyone's convinced.
Floodwood, Minn. — State and federal laws require new wetlands be built when wetlands are filled. Sometimes developers are required to build double, quadruple or even more replacement acres.
Dale Rauvola was none too happy when he heard where PolyMet Mining was considering new wetlands. PolyMet is exploring an almost 4,000-acre mitigation project near the St. Louis County town of Floodwood, some 50 miles from the PolyMet mine. Long-drained wetlands would be restored on county property, right behind Rauvola's 600-acre farm. Rauvola is afraid the water won't stay put.
"If they plug the ditches -- the proposed areas -- and just plug it, this property would be basically underwater," Rauvola says. "And then my western farm fields, it would migrate ... from west to east onto the fields. And I just, I don't want that to happen."
Rauvola's land and the county land behind were drained for farming a century ago. Most of the farms failed, with the land going to St. Louis County for tax forfeiture.
Now, some county officials see a chance to restore the original wetlands, while making a little money for the project from PolyMet Mining. But Rauvola's worried he'll be hurt by the push to help PolyMet.
"We're not a mining company here; mining property here," Rauvola says. "We're just an area that does a little bit of farming, and for recreation purposes, we have recreation land here. The governor's for this. The commissioners are for it. And the legislators are for it, so we're kind of outnumbered in this area."
Rauvola also has doubts about the health of the restored wetlands. The property out back is already wild and boggy. It's a great place for deer and ducks, as well as timber. Flood all that, Rauvola says, and you get dead trees and lifeless water.
"You plug the ditch, you get a stagnant swamp that's not growing, and basically doesn't benefit anybody," says Rauvola. "It's good the way it is. It's a living swamp. We don't want it dead."
Dave Zentner thinks Rauvola might have a point. Zentner is a well-known Minnesota conservationist, and past national president of the Izaak Walton League. Zentner says you don't necessarily get good wetlands by flooding dry land.
"I look at projects that, post-mitigation, look to me like the mitigated site is very, very, unproductive, very biologically inactive," Zentner says.
Too often, he says, drowned trees and plants decompose, robbing the water of oxygen needed to support the plants and insects at the base of a food chain. Wetlands like that, Zentner says, do little for wildlife.
"It meets the statutory requirements. It's legal. It follows procedure," Zentner says. "But the bottom line is, what was taken out, versus what's replaced, we've got a net loss in terms of function."
Isolated wetlands aren't as good for wildlife as wetlands in a large, undeveloped area, like the Glacial Ridge complex in northwest Minnesota's Polk County. That's where the Nature Conservancy and others are restoring 35,000 acres of prairie and wetlands.
And that's where Zentner would like to see PolyMet build its replacement wetlands.
"We have an opportunity there to do a combination of prairie habitat and wetland habitat restoration that could be really quite magnificent," says Zentner.
Zentner recently presented his idea to government regulators and PolyMet officials. Jim Scott, assistant project manager for PolyMet, is interested. He says a large mitigation at Glacial Ridge could accommodate all of PolyMet's needs, while the Floodwood site would only contribute a portion of the acreage needed.
"We're open to a bigger project," Scott says. "In fact, that's easier for us to do one transaction, or one project, that meets all of our needs. And we're actively investigating that at this point."
But, there are formidable hurdles. St. Louis County hopes to make money off the Floodwood site, and PolyMet would have to create many more acres at Glacial Ridge, because it's in a different watershed.
But the biggest hurdle is the Nature Conservancy. Director Ron Nargang isn't interested. Nargang says wetland restoration is already underway at Glacial Ridge. And he says he doesn't like to see wetland mitigation on one side of Minnesota for wetlands destroyed on the other.
"I've always been of the belief that if wetlands are destroyed, and are going to be mitigated for, you should do it as close to the point of the construction, or mining, or whatever that caused the wetland damage, to try to maintain the hydrologic balance of the system," Nargang says.
Despite that initial rejection, Dave Zentner promises to keep pushing the idea. PolyMet's consultants are looking into it, and company officials expect to know within a few weeks whether there's any hope for new wetlands at Glacial Ridge.
PolyMet still has a fallback -- the permitting process continues for the acreage behind Dale Rauvola's house. Without a change of heart from the Nature Conservancy, 4,000 acres near Floodwood could soon be flooded.
- All Things Considered, 06/05/2006, 5:22 p.m.