The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has signed a letter of intent for issuing water quality certification for filling approximately 35 acres of wetlands for construction of a new middle school within the city limits of Superior. The DNR argues that there is no clear alternative to the wetland site. The high quality wetland hosts a diversity of unusual plants including two state threatened plant species and the only known Wisconsin population of smooth black sedge, a species more characteristic of east coast wetlands.
In the “Notice of Proposed Incidental Taking of Endangered Species,” the DNR contradicts itself. The agency acknowledges that the “proposed project is expected to result in the incidental taking of a number of endangered resources. Seaside crowfoot (Ranunculus cymbalaria, threatened) and arrow-leaved sweet coltsfoot (Petasites sagittatus, threatened) occur as small populations at the proposed site. Also, all currently known Wisconsin populations of smooth black sedge (Carex nigra) are found on or near the proposed school site. (emphasis ours).” The Notice continues, “The Department determined that the expected incidental taking is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the State populations of…smooth black sedge (Carex nigra),” even though this is the only known site for the species in the state!
The DNR has proposed that a “conservation plan” be developed that includes protecting some off-site areas and transplanting the threatened species from the area to be filled to another site. However, experience has shown that transplanting rare species rarely is successful.
This unexpected letter of intent by the DNR to allow filling such a large and diverse wetland suggests that the decision is being made to appease the Superior community, rather than based on sound scientific information. In fact, a community referendum for construction of the school passed with a clear majority. Much of the city of Superior is located in the Lake Superior “red clay wetlands,” a region of saturated soils that pose difficulties for development.
Citizens have until November to challenge the DNR decision. Wisconsin Wetlands Association is opposing the issuance of any permits for this large wetland fill, which would represent the largest single fill of any individual development project since the establishment of state water quality certification standards for wetlands in 1991.