For an administration that has repeatedly stated its commitment to “no net loss” of wetlands in the country, it sure has a funny way of showing it. In January 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) proposed to limit regulation of “isolated” wetlands, putting up to 20 million acres at risk (this proposal was abandoned after they received more than 130,000 public comments). Now the Detroit District of the Corps has proposed modifications to Michigan’s Regional Permit to allow commercial hotel and motel owners along the state’s Great Lakes shoreline to destroy coastal wetlands. The changes have been couched as a compromise that will allow for increased access to the water’s edge by hotel and motel customers while inflicting little harm on the environment. In truth, the Corps has provided little evidence of the potential impacts to the aquatic environment, and even less evidence that commercial hotels and motels are suffering without these changes. The agency should abandon this policy that leaves the health of a globally treasured resource in question to the benefit of a narrow commercial interest.
What is a Regional Permit?
A Regional Permit is a blanket permit that authorizes activities that are similar in nature and have been determined to cause only minimal adverse environmental impact when performed separately, and will have only a minimal adverse cumulative effect on the environment. The current Regional Permit for Michigan has already been streamlined to accommodate all shoreline property owners in times of low water levels. These permits are free of charge and the processing time was significantly reduced last year (generally about two weeks). Property owners may currently level sand by removing it from areas of accumulation and depositing it in non-vegetated areas at a volume of not more than two cubic yards per foot of shoreline. Owners may also build a path or boardwalk through a wetland to reach non-vegetated areas, and may mechanically groom non-vegetated bottomlands no deeper than four inches. Bottomlands are areas found along a body of water that are usually submerged, but may become exposed at times. The proposal assumes that there is a need for a further streamlining, but does not include any substantive discussion about why the current process is not working and why this particular commercial interest should be treated differently than others.
What Kind of an Impact is Anticipated?
The Corps has provided some estimates for the East Bay of Grand Traverse Bay. Of a total 40 acres of wetlands exposed between the water’s edge and the ordinary high water mark (OHWM) on commercial hotel/motel properties, 15 percent (six acres) would be at risk under the proposed modifications. There is no assessment available for the amount of impact expected across the more than 3,200 miles of Michigan Great Lakes shoreline. It is hard to imagine that a potential 15 percent loss of coastal wetlands in East Bay could be construed as having only a minimal adverse effect on the environment, not to mention potential impacts across the State.
The loss of any amount of coastal wetlands has adverse environmental impacts from the increased potential for erosion (especially in the area between water’s edge and OHWM that is subject to the most wave action); the loss of important habitat for waterfowl, fish, and a variety of other wildlife; reduced water quality from algae-causing nutrients that would otherwise be taken up by wetland vegetation; and an increased likelihood of invasive species taking hold. Taken cumulatively, these impacts are simply unacceptable.
Cost / Benefit Analysis
The decision on whether to issue the proposed modifications to Michigan’s Regional Permit is to be based on an evaluation of the probable impacts of the proposed activities on the public interest. The Corps will take into account a variety of factors that include economic, environmental, aesthetic, recreational, safety, and other considerations. By targeting a specific type of commercial interest, hotel and motel owners, it is clear that the impetus for these changes is economic in nature. But even taking a purely economic perspective, the benefits provided by hunters, anglers ($800 million in 2001), and wildlife watchers ($750 million in 2001) every year in Michigan is undeniably linked to the important ecological services provided by intact coastal wetlands.
A Misguided Policy
The Army Corps of Engineers is not the federal agency responsible for promoting business interests. The Corps, however, is in charge of regulating wetlands along navigable waters. As such, the agency has a responsibility to the entire country to ensure the health of the Great Lakes.The proposed modifications are glaringly to the benefit of only a vocal minority of one particular private commercial interest. The losers under this policy are commercial interests whose livelihood is tied to the health of the Great Lakes, and the pubic at large for whom Great Lakes bottomlands (the very area where the destruction will occur) are held in trust by the State of Michigan.