Written By: Lon Ullmann
As any environmental activist knows, state or federal agencies charged with protecting our natural resources have not demonstrated their willingness to enforce the laws. I, like the rest of the trusting public, thought that the wetlands of our state were protected. Perhaps in theory, but certainly not in practice.
Two years ago, while at Troy City Hall, I was contacted by my wife who asked me to see what was going on across the road from our house. She had seen surveyors at work in the 120 acres of wooded wetlands by our home. Her phone call changed our lives dramatically.
The City Engineer was very forthcoming about the intended drain program they had developed. The plan called for the “improvement” of a 50 year old agricultural drain into a storm sewer to drain the wetlands and build houses.
The Blue Heron Rookery would have been drained as well. I soon discovered that a deal had been struck between the developer and the City of Try to share the cost of the drain. It was, I am told, one of the most well documented cases of exactly what is wrong with the Drain Code. No one but the City officials, the developer and the project engineers knew of the deal. It was officially called a “clean out” of the drain when $325,000 was approved by City Council for a 3/4 mile ditch. The price ballooned to $875,000 because the developer designed the project (his name was on the plans) to enclose the whole drain to his liking. His engineering firm decided his share was $155,000 and the City share $720,000!
The first newspaper reporter I called wrote an article questioning the drain deal. More articles were written by local papers condemning the drain deal and the destruction of natural habitats. Citizens wrote numerous letters to the City Council and finally they quietly voted the drain project dead.
The positive affect of the drain incident was the raising of public awareness of natural areas and wetlands remaining in Troy. The City of Troy studied the area by the Rookery and has taken steps to preserve it. They won’t do anything to the drain and land has been purchased by the City around the Rookery.
A groups of us formed the Troy Wildlife and Wetland Coalition to protect the remaining natural areas in Troy, most of which are wooded wetlands. At our first meeting, we invited the new City Manager and the City Council. The City Manager and 5 of the 7 council members attended. We suggested a local wetland ordinance and they unanimously agreed. The ordinance that is due to be written by the end of April, will be for natural features, wetlands and woodlands. We have gone from a community that developed everything to one that now monitors all proposed developments for valuable natural features.
What I saw here was a way for a local community to do what our D.E.Q. has not being doing—saving wetlands. Perhaps, we as activists and environmentalists would be better served by persuading local units of government to preserve what we deem valuable literally in our own neighborhoods. People in Troy call me when they see development encroaching on the last open space left around their homes. Soon, hopefully we will have a local ordinance to preserve some of these open spaces before they disappear. We need local laws to do what state laws have failed to do.
To accomplish these things, we must get to know our local government officials and need to attend Council or Board meetings. I have found these people needed to be educated. They didn’t know about local options for wetland preservation. I sent them wetland books explaining what wetlands are, how they work and how they can be protected. Many people are ill informed about nature and science and it should be our job to inform them.
If we are to make changes, we must learn to lobby our local officials. If approached in a non-confrontational manner, I found them friendly and helpful. As one said, a lot of letters make justifying a decision easier. Newspaper reporters are always looking for stories and they thrive on conflicts. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was apathy. People believe that government doesn’t work and they can’t change anything. They are wrong on both counts. Apathy is a double edged sword and so few people actively participate in government that it is possible for a few organized people to facilitate change.
People are willing to help if they are asked. I have found that if I am looking someone in the eye and ask for help, they almost never say no. We need to network with like-minded individuals to broaden our education and to help each other. Most of all, we must be persistent. The people I encountered didn’t expect me to still be here 2 years later. Persistence Pays!!!!!