A U.S. Supreme Court ruling could have a profound effect on efforts to manage development and enhance wildlife habitat in northwest Ohio, including at the historic Oak Openings region of western Lucas County.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled Tuesday that swampy areas known as wetlands can no longer be protected by restrictive provisions set forth in the federal Clean Water Act unless they are connected to a lake, river, stream, or other type of navigable waterway.
That means thousands of acres set aside nationally for wildlife habitat could be vulnerable to development.
Many are in northwest Ohio, a historically swampy region that has been drained for agriculture, industry, and road-construction projects over the years.
The case centered on a Chicago-area landfill that would be built atop abandoned gravel pits filled with water and used by wildfowl.
The ruling is a blow to those trying to protect remaining wetlands and sites in the process of reverting to their natural state. Ohio is second only to California in percentage of wetland destruction.
“I could see it being very devastating,” said Mark Shieldcastle, a state wildlife biologist in Ottawa County who oversees Ohio's bald eagle recovery program.
“We were told a long time ago the state needs to get its own wetlands protection laws in place,” he said. “The main federal law is benign now.”
The historic Oak Openings region, known for its globally rare plants and animals, comprises 130 square miles of Lucas, Henry, and Fulton counties.
Western Lucas County, in particular Springfield, Spencer, and Monclova townships, have been booming with residential and commercial development. As development pressures pushed harder into the Oak Openings region, efforts were stepped up to protect natural areas.
Environmentalists have long viewed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' cumbersome and costly wetland permits as tools to guard against uncontrolled growth.
John Marshall, Ohio Division of Wildlife environmental administrator, said the court could have inadvertently encouraged more sprawl by removing the biggest barrier for land-locked wetlands.
Mr. Shieldcastle agreed. He said the Oak Openings is in danger because of the way it has been chiseled up by development over the years, leaving wetland acreage scattered.
“The one big tool they [the Oak Openings] had is gone,” he said. “None of those are connected. They're all isolated wetlands.”
Terry Seidel, Oak Openings project manager for the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation group with an office in western Lucas County, hasn't analyzed the ruling but fears its potential.
“It certainly could have an impact on protection of wetlands in the Oak Openings,” he said. “I think we'd be taking a step back.”
Mr. Marshall said state officials are waiting to see how the Corps interprets the ruling.
A spokesman for the Corps' district office in Buffalo, which oversees much of the Great Lakes region, was not available.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency regulates wetlands on the state level, but looks to the Corps as the lead agency in such matters, Pat Madigan, Ohio EPA spokeswoman, said.
She said the Ohio EPA has not analyzed the ruling enough to predict its effect.
In addition to providing valuable wildlife habitat, wetlands - often called marshes - are buffers that serve as natural flood-control devices. They help improve water quality by filtering out chemically tainted waste that gets washed off roads and land, officials have said.
Mr. Marshall said he fears the ruling will hurt attempts to restore wetlands, by reducing the burden developers face when they fill in swampy land for their housing and business projects.
The so-called wetlands mitigation banking program requires developers to either donate enough land or money so that the state Department of Natural Resources comes away with 1.5 acres of wetlands for every acre of wetland that is destroyed.
“If that's no longer required, we go from gaining a half-acre [for every acre that's destroyed] to losing an acre,” Mr. Marshall said.