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Kelso sets aside hundreds of acres for 'wetland bank'

The city, which will receive 20 percent of the wetland credit revenue, expects to take in between $350,000 and $1 million over a 10-year period.

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A swath of undeveloped public land along the Coweeman River is about to become a “wetland bank” that will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next decade for the city of Kelso.

The project, to be located on 140 acres of city-owned pastures, hillsides and forests and another 100 acres of privately owned land nearby, will be the first such undertaking in Cowlitz County and one of 14 statewide.

The area includes what’s locally known as Harts Lake. It lies mostly along the southern floodplain of the Coweeman east of Tam O’ Shanter Park and extends up into the hills. Although the project won’t affect access to the publicly owned lands, they’re surrounded by private property and lack direct access.

The city signed a lease this summer with Habitat Banc NW, allowing the Kirkland, Wash., firm to design and build high-quality wetland improvements that generate wetland “credits.” These will be sold to developers whose projects damage or destroy wetlands elsewhere in the Coweeman and Cowlitz river watersheds. It’s a way of compensating for loss of wetlands, which are important for wildlife, fish, flood control and water quality.

The city, which will receive 20 percent of the wetland credit revenue, expects to take in between $350,000 and $1 million over a 10-year period, City Manager Steve Taylor said. The revenue range is broad because credits for sections of the land that have a higher wetland value will be sold at a higher price.

“The fact that we’re getting monetary value out of this wetland restoration is a good thing for everybody,” Taylor said Tuesday.

The state releases the wetland credits for projects over a 10-year period as the area meets performance standards for vegetation success and proof of wetlands restoration. When credits are sold, money is set aside to pay for long-term stewardship of the site by a conservation group to ensure it’s permanently preserved.

Before the Coweeman wetlands site work begins, several agencies must agree on the proposed plan. The agencies are the city, county, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Ecology, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service. That process will take about a year, said Habitat Banc owner Victor Woodward, whose firm has created five other wetland projects in the state, including one in Battle Ground.

Kelso’s wetland bank is needed because several potential rail, port, road, highway, power line and pipeline projects are planned for the area, Woodward said Wednesday. The state’s long-awaited high-speed rail project will require installing a third rail, and because the tracks run along the Columbia River, the expansion will impact wetlands and streams, including potential salmon habitat. Woodward said he doesn’t know what permits will be approved, but people involved in the projects have already inquired about using mitigation from Habitat Banc’s sites.

“Just about anything that happens of any scale in the Cowlitz-Kelso area is going to have wetland impacts,” said Woodward, 58, an entrepreneur with a background in environmental studies. “So there’s a great need for this from our perspective right now.”

Developers pay in the ballpark of $200,000 for 1 acre of wetland credit. It’s a lot of money, but developers know it’s cheaper to write a check to a wetland banker than to create the project themselves, said Woodward, whose three-person firm relies on consultants for permitting and technical expertise.

The Kelso project will involve recreating habitat that was destroyed by human activities, and, in the process, protect and increase the Coweeman’s fish stock. Because the Coweeman doesn’t have a hatchery or dams like many other local rivers, it still contains genetically pure strains of chinook, coho and steelhead. Therefore, one of the major goals is to improve the conditions and health of fish by tackling some of the factors that have limited their runs, Woodward said.

Pools and ponds will be created in off-channel areas for fish, which don’t have marshes to hide in during floods anymore because the area is diked. Trees will be planted along shorelines to shade the river, which will lower the water’s temperature so it’s more hospitable to the chinook and steelhead. Small tributaries that were cut off from the river by culverts and ditches will be reconnected to the Coweeman so coho fry can use them during their first year of life before they head out to the Pacific Ocean.

“They need to be able to physically get up and down and in and out of certain areas to live and grow,” Woodward said.

Native trees and shrubs will be densely planted in open areas. The project will need heavy excavation to link the Coweeman back to its surrounding wetlands, he said.

“It is quite a risky, capital-intensive long-term project,” Woodward said.

The city-owned portion of the project site is property the state Department of Natural Resources transferred to Kelso in 2002 and includes the Harts Lake area. It includes about 100 acres of old-growth forest, which was selectively logged long ago. Trees 7 feet in diameter remain standing on the steep, rugged hill, Woodward said, adding that such a big piece of old forestland doesn’t exist anywhere else in Cowlitz County.

Up to 80 acres of the forest will be protected forever as a buffer because it’s a unique habitat and its shade keeps wetlands in the area in good condition, he said.

For the next year, Habitat Banc will hold regular meetings with the parties involved until they have a “mitigation banking instrument” for everyone to sign. Once a plan is approved, the work can begin, Woodward said.

City Manager Taylor said when the city was approached about the opportunity, city officials evaluated how much they might be able to sell the land for and other ways the land might be used for parks or recreation.

“What we liked,” he said, “is we were able to enhance the ecological value of the property, derive money from that to help pay for other city projects, and we are leaving the land in an enhanced state in perpetuity.”


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