By Pat Krebs and Pat Dwight, Friends of Sheldon’s Marsh and the Ohio Environmental Council and Molly Flannigan, Ohio Environmental Council
Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve. This outstanding preserve on Lake Erie and its contiguous wetlands comprise some of the last remaining undeveloped stretches of shoreline in the Sandusky Bay region. Supporting a number of rare and threatened plant and animal communities and providing an important stopover for migratory birds, this wondrous area is truly one of the most important natural jewels of Ohio’s North Coast. The preservation of Sheldon’s Marsh is important to the economy, ecology, and community in the area.
Preservation, however, has not always been the fate of Sheldon’s Marsh. In early 2000, local property owners and National Audubon Society-Firelands Chapter members Pat Krebs and Pat Dwight observed what they believed was an illegal dike and channel constructed by Barnes Nursery through the rare wetlands. The Nursery claimed to have a permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) but Krebs and Dwight were skeptical.
It was at this point that they encountered what would be their biggest obstacle during the great effort to save Sheldon’s Marsh; they did not know where to begin. They had no knowledge of permits or the processes that are involved in applying for permits. They did not know where to go or who to see to answer their questions or give them information. So they did the only thing they could do, they began making phone calls and asking questions. They obtained and waded through numerous Corps public documents only to discover that the Nursery was digging through Category III (highest quality) wetlands with an improper permit for enhancing degraded wetlands, during the height of growing season. They informed several other local land owners and concerned citizens of what they had learned and together they formed the Friends of Sheldon’s Marsh (FOSM).
It was determined that the Nursery had exceeded the provisions of its permit and it was directed to stop work in July 2000 until it could obtain a proper permit. The Corps rescinded the improper permit and told the Nursery that it would have to obtain an after-the-fact 404 permit under the Clean Water Act. FOSM knew that if the new permit was issued it would result in further degradation of Sheldon’s Marsh, and that was not something that this unwavering group was willing to allow.
FOSM immediately set out to make the public aware of the potential fate of Sheldon’s Marsh. They set up a web site and implored the public to write letters and to make phone calls to their local politicians and make their position known. They sent out letters and special alerts detailing their position on issues concerning Sheldon’s Marsh. The National Audubon Society introduced FOSM to the GLAHNF network, which allowed FOSM members access to a wealth of environmental information and connections. FOSM received several GLAHNF grants between 2001 and 2003 which helped offset the costs of legal fees, office costs, mailing costs, and the cost of the FOSM website. It is incredible to think that a small group of ten to twelve citizens were able to reach out to the public and elicit over 1500 public comments in the form of letters, emails, and phone calls.
In December 2001, the Corps issued a provisional permit to the Nursery after conducting an Environmental Assessment (EA) and determining that the proposed project would not have a significant individual or cumulative impact on the environment nor would it contravene the public interest despite the public outcry for the protection of the Marsh. Regulating authorities, US EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) recommended denial of the permit and restoration of the site.
Despite the fact that a provisional permit was issued, FOSM was more determined than ever to keep a final permit from being issued. FOSM members believed that if this occurred it would surely seal the fate of Sheldon’s Marsh. FOSM set out to do what it was most successful at doing – calling for public outcry. The authorization of the provisional permit was contingent on the Nursery receiving water quality certification and costal zone consistency from the state, both of which were denied.
The Nursery appealed these decisions through separate appeal processes. An Ohio Attorney General’s brief to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce recommended that “the Secretary of the Department of Commerce dismiss the appeal by the Nursery on denial of coastal consistency, and recommend to the Corps to require restoration since the project is unauthorized and unauthorizable” under the Coastal Zone Management Act. In May 2003 it withdrew the appeals and the administrative process was closed and the project remains unauthorized.
The dropping of the appeals and finalizing of the permit denial marked a hard-earned and long-awaited victory for FOSM. However, the permit denial was only half the battle. If the dike and channel were allowed to remain in the category III wetlands, it could set a dangerous precedent for undermining wetland laws nationally. It was important for the public to continue to apply the same sort of pressure for the restoration of the marsh as it did to having the permits denied. Finally, in October 2003, the Corps gave FOSM members and concerned citizen’s everywhere reason to celebrate when it directed the restoration of Sheldon’s Marsh to its preconstruction condition. The order directs restoration of the project area by December 31, 2004. The commander of the Corps, Buffalo District, commented that “the 2004 deadline takes into account environmental exclusion dates during which certain types of work must be halted to avoid possible impacts on endangered species, and gives the Nursery the opportunity to adjust its business model.” FOSM members learned some important and difficult lessons through their battle with the Nursery. When asked what the key to the success of FOSM was, co-founder Pat Krebs replied “dogged tenacity and determination”. FOSM also offers these words of encouragement to others who find themselves in similar situations:
Do not be discouraged and do not simply believe what people tell you. If FOSM had been satisfied when Barnes told them that they had a permit for their dike and channel, more damage could have occurred to the wetland. Do the research and find the information that you need to determine what is really going on. Government agencies must provide you with information regarding permits. This freedom of information is what got FOSM on the right track from the beginning. Contact state and federal authorities. Find out who is in charge of regulating the activities in question and provide them with support to do what is right. Hold them accountable for enforcing their own regulations. Citizen outcry can help this process by forcing regulators to address an issue.
FOSM plans to continue to utilize citizen’s voices to pressure the Nursery into restoring the wetland. Finally, be patient. These processes can take a long time, but they also can result in outstanding success.