Here’s some really valuable swampland
EAGLE COUNTY ” When the runway of the Eagle County Airport is extended later this year, the county will be using a Steamboat Springs “bank” with some very liquid assets.
We’re not talking money” it’s swampland.
It’s called the Finger Rock Preserve on 620 acres of former cow pasture south of Yampa, about 40 miles north of Wolcott. The pasture has been transformed into wetlands by earth-moving equipment.
The banking part allows land developers in Eagle and Routt counties to purchase portions of those wetlands in Routt County that have been “banked” to replace those they paved over elsewhere.
Sometimes developers are allowed to create replacement wetlands near or on their developments if there is land available to do so.
Wetlands are environmentally sensitive areas that act as huge “bio-filters” to improve water quality. They are generally protected from development except under certain circumstances ” such as at the airport, which can only expand to the east.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides on a case-by-case basis whether developers can build new wetlands on their own property or if they have to do so elsewhere.
The small wetlands at the airport sit astride Alkalai Creek and are just east of the existing runway. The county will extend the runway by 1,000 feet ” over the creek and its wetlands ” to make takeoffs and landings safer.
In ski season the airport is the second busiest airport in the state and is used by 757s and other large commercial aircraft.
The runway extension will cover about 0.4 acres of wetlands and the county purchased 0.6 acres of wetlands in southern Routt County for $54,000 to replace what will be lost.
There are two key elements that make what the county is doing possible.
The first was the creation two years ago of the 620-acre Finger Rock Preserve 40 miles north of Wolcott. The second is a water diversion that takes water from tributaries of Yampa River and diverts it into the Colorado River basin.
That vital connecting thread between Eagle and Routt counties connects the two river basins in the eyes of wetlands-regulation agencies and makes it possible to buy wetlands in Routt to replace those destroyed here, said Ren Martyn, director of the wetlands preserve.
“There aren’t many mitigation alternatives in the developed Eagle County corridor,” he said, adding that Eagle County, like most using the bank, purchased 1.5 times more wetlands than will be destroyed at the airport.
While it may be difficult to envision how wetlands there are more ecologically sound than wetland here, Martyn said it’s becoming more and more common as increasing development impairs the functioning of local wetlands.
“Wetlands mitigation banks across the nation are becoming more viable because environmentalist are behind larger tracts of habitat,” he said.
Martyn’s preserve has 255 acres of wetlands on the 620 acres, including four 2-acre ponds and up to 35 small dams on nearby Brinker and Chimney creeks. The land there cannot be developed.
For developers, purchasing wetlands in the preserve also transfers the responsibility for making sure the wetlands are healthy from the developers to the wetlands banks.
But not everyone likes the concept of removing wetlands here and replacing them with some elsewhere.
“We need to leave wetlands here alone and purchase ones up there and do double the good,” said Ken Neubecker, West Slope Organizer for Colorado Trout Unlimited. “It doesn’t do the river here any good. Wetlands are such an organic system they don’t work well that way.”
Others, like environmental consultant Mike Claffey of Claffey Ecological Consulting in Grand Junction, think it makes sense to preserve wetlands in a larger system instead of having many smaller wetlands.
“It’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s much more definite than having some of these small operations trying to do mitigation. Quite often mitigation banks are already created and the permittee doesn’t have to worry about regulations.”
Does wetlands mitigation banking encourage development? Not really, said Claffey.
“It really doesn’t encourage development,” he said. “You are still required to minimize to the maximum extent practicable. It’s not automatic.”
Martyn, 36, who has a degree in environmental science, is a former teacher in Steamboat Springs who moved to Florida and got into the citrus business.
In Florida wetlands mitigation banking is pretty common, he said. When he yielded to the call of the mountains several years later and moved back to Steamboat Springs, he decided to start a wetlands bank.
It’s now one of five in the state, and he said he expects it will take more time to become a fully-functioning wetlands once the vegetation has begin to mature.
“It takes a long time,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing the transition that has occurred from when we started construction in 2004 and now.”
So far Martyn’s preserve has five different organizations that have purchased wetlands, including the Union Pacific Railroad, Colorado Department of Transportation, and Eagle and Routt counties. Martyn’s wetlands range in price from $75,000 to $110,00 per acre, he said.
For more information, call Finger Rock Preserve at (970)879-4546.
Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org.