Rare Wetland Raises Restoration Hopes

A vegetable farm once owned by frozen-foods entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci is becoming the only wetland bank of its kind in the nation.

A vegetable farm once owned by frozen-foods entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci is becoming the only wetland bank of its kind in the nation.

In the 1950s and '60s Paulucci grew carrots, celery, broccoli and mushrooms at his 350-acre Wilderness Valley Farms tract along St. Louis County Highway 7 in Zim. For a while, Paulucci had horse manure brought in by train from Chicago to help the mushrooms grow.

The farm was later used for research on hybrid poplar, greenhouse gases, berries and sod.

Over the last five years, soil scientists from the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute have found a modern use for the land -- turning it into a certified wetland bank.

Scientists have spent frigid winters and hot summers smoothing the wide-open land, plugging 82 drainage ditches and transplanting moss from a site in Iron.

The Fens Research Facility is creating the kind of habitat that developers need to replace wetlands that are filled during road construction or economic development.

Bordered by a massive swamp to the west and a railroad track to the east, it's the only wetland bank in the country to feature a mix of peat bog and wooded swamp. The valuable terrain can replace sphagnum moss bogs lost to development acre for acre.

So far, 110 acres have been completed at the Fens site. Another 132 acres are nearly restored.

Fens was once the name of a railroad siding at the site, about 50 miles northwest of Duluth.

"The Fens is representative of much of the peat land in northern Minnesota," said Tom Malterer, NRRI peat program director. "Its characteristics and its setting reflect many peat lands. Because of that, the research being done here can be transferred to other peat lands."

After Paulucci closed the farm, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board owned the property until 1986, when it was sold to the NRRI. With the land, the NRRI responded to property developers' need for wetland replacement and a mid-1980s mandate by the federal and state governments that developers replace wetlands they destroy.

"Almost no new industry could be developed on wetland in the U.S. because they couldn't get permits to drain them," said Malterer. "Society changed and made a series of judgments about wetlands."

Plugging the ditches, flattening fields that were once crowned, adding sulfur to the soil and replanting the site with native wild mosses turned the Fens site from an "effectively drained" status into a certified wetlands bank.

NRRI scientists are also reversing what many early white settlers did, said Malterer. Many settlers to Northeastern Minnesota dug ditches to drain lands for farming and agriculture, he said. As demand for wetland increases, less land in Northeastern Minnesota will remain available for farm use. "Almost all of the effort that the settlers did is being turned around now, which will mean less agriculture."

All 350 acres of the Fens site are already sold. The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Research bought the 110-acre parcel for county and township boards to replace wetlands lost in road construction projects. The remainder of the site will be used by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to mitigate wetlands filled during the recently completed reconstruction of Highway 53 north of Virginia.

"It's good for the economy," said Malterer. "Good roads are good for the economy; and by being able to provide mitigation credits, we are able to have a good economy."

It cost the NRRI about $3,000 to $4,000 an acre to restore the land. In turn, MnDOT and the water and soil board will pay NRRI $8,000 an acre. Proceeds will go into a trust to pay for wetlands restoration and mitigation research.

But a major problem could lie ahead for other developers. A scarcity of available wetlands for developers to compensate for wetland loss could become a large issue for several planned projects in Northeastern Minnesota. Economic development projects such as PolyMet Mining Co.'s proposed base and precious metals mine, Excelsior Energy's coal-gasification plant and Mesabi Nugget will probably require wetland replacement. With the exception of about 10 to 20 acres near Duluth, there's no certified wetlands credits available in Northeastern Minnesota, said Malterer.

"It's a crisis," he said. "Where will the credits come from?"

Tim Peterson, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Two Harbors, said Northeastern Minnesota needs more wetlands for mitigation. "Up in this area, there isn't too much for banks at the moment," said Peterson. "Compensatory mitigation for these projects hasn't been figured out yet -- they're discussing different options."

Replacing wetlands with the same type of wetland and in the same watershed is preferred, he said. However, replacing wetlands with a different type of wetland can also be considered before looking to a bank for replacement, Peterson said.

PolyMet Mining Co. is studying solutions to replace about 1,200 acres of wetland that could be filled over two decades, said Warren Hudelson, a PolyMet spokesman. About 700 potential acres have so far been identified, some of it former agricultural land between Floodwood and Meadowlands, he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News