Ohio developers could fill in wetlands, displace wild species, and pave over native vegetation, all the while atoning for sins against nature by buying credits in wetland mitigation banks - large, specially designed, improved habitats, rich in species diversity and protected forever after from the encroachment of development.
But a study by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reveals that mitigation banks created mostly mediocre habitat and led to the loss of between 123 acres and 247 acres of state wetlands.
The EPA examined a dozen mitigation banks approved between 1993 and 2003. The banks encompass some 1,300 acres in nine counties, including two mitigation banks in northwest Ohio.
"The habitat is not suitable,'' said Mick Micacchion of the EPA and one of the report's two authors. "It's not replacing what we're losing.''
Julie Sibbing, who tracks national wetlands legislation for the National Wildlife Federation, said the two EPA researchers who compiled the report, John Mack and Mr. Micacchion, have a national reputation for doing solid work, which heightens the report's credibility.
"The bad part is, your state just doesn't seem to have the political will to fight anything, so they default to mitigation too easily, and we're finding out that fails," Ms. Sibbing said.
Wetlands are transition zones, unique regions between open water and dry ground. These sopping soils create a realm of high natural diversity, with a larger variety of plants and animals than either the more arid uplands or the lake or pond.
That is the landscape wetland mitigation banking was to create.
But what was produced on a quarter of the wetland bank property were ponds.
"Large areas of unvegetated open water, it's almost in a way a biological desert, and it's certainly not compensating for what we've lost," Mr. Micacchion said.
In some cases, the ponds have steep sloping banks, so little shoreline vegetation can take hold. And they are often full of frog-eating fish.
As habitat for amphibians, which are in decline around the globe, the mitigation banks are complete failures, the report said.
Only the most common amphibians, those most tolerant to disturbance, were abundant in these artificial wetlands. While bullfrogs and green frogs thrive, more sensitive species, such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders, are entirely absent.
In fact, the EPA gave all but four of the 12 wetland banks scores of 0 as amphibian habitat. The other four banks earned 3s. It would take a score of 10 or more for a wetland to be considered anything more than poor.
About half of Ohio's vanishing wetlands are forested, yet little of the mitigation-bank wetlands are wooded. Sixty-three percent of the bank wetlands are marsh or wet meadow, and only 11 percent are wetland forest - and much of that far from ideal. Completely missing are shrub wetlands.
Efforts to create forested wetlands often resulted in large stands of drowning trees. At Three Eagles mitigation bank, northeast of Fremont in Sandusky County, bank developers flooded a stand of trees that thrive in moist soils but cannot tolerate standing water. The trees died.
At Grand River Lowlands in Ashtabula County near the Pennsylvania border, the bank developer built a dike and flooded an existing oak swamp. The trees died.
In some areas, species diversity declined after the wetland bank was established. For instance, the 109-acre Sandy Ridge mitigation bank in Lorain County, west of Cleveland, saw the number of plant species fall from 37 before the wetland was created in 1997 to 16 by 2002. Tree species fell from four to zero.
Much of what's wrong with Ohio's wetland mitigation banks is the result of a science and regulatory effort, still in its infancy, some commentators said.
Vincent E. Messerly is the president of the Ohio Wetlands Foundation. The foundation created four of the 12 mitigation banks in the EPA assessment, including the first mitigation bank in the state, the 34-acre Hebron bank in Licking County. The foundation is working on its seventh wetlands mitigation bank.
The newest wetland "is substantially different in design" from any of the nonprofit organization's earlier banks. "I think it's an evolutionary process,'' he said. Ten years from now, people will probably say the best work of 2006 falls short, he said.
Mr. Messerly's group also established Sandy Ridge in Lorain County, where plant species diversity declined, and Three Eagles in Sandusky County, where the trees were drowned. In addition, it made wetland banks judged "partially successful" in Marion and Pickaway counties.
Mr. Messerly alternated between contrition and irritation when discussing the EPA report.
"We're obviously disappointed in ourselves,'' he said. "I think it's important to be reviewed, and to have criticism, or obviously you never get any better. But there's a part of me that feels it's a little unfair.''
The banks are still evolving, and the review was just a "snapshot'' of the change they will undergo, he said.
"I also wonder how unbiased [the EPA authors] are in their approach. I just think to a certain degree, knowing those fellows, I don't necessarily think they look at banking as very positive," Mr. Messerly said.
He said Ohio EPA criticizes Sandy Ridge, yet the area attracts 225 species of birds, including 18 that are endangered or threatened.
Mr. Messerly said, in some cases, the EPA report criticizes banks for doing exactly what regulators told the banks to do.
"I think they're pointing a finger at themselves. I don't think it's a failure. I think it's a learning experience.''
Mr. Micacchion said the regulating agencies - including Ohio EPA, the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the lead agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - should share the blame. "A lot of the people on the banking review team [in early years] had very little experience in this, especially looking at large mitigation projects,'' he said. They looked at bank developers as the experts.
"In the past it was like, 'They must know what they're doing.' I think now we're very diligent. I think we've learned a lot from the process."
Karyn Allman, a biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's field office in the Columbus suburb of Reynoldsburg, says one problem is lack of enforcement and follow-up inspections.
"The corps and the Ohio EPA are overwhelmed. You can stipulate many things in a permit, but following up to make sure what was supposed to have been done has actually been done is another matter."
Alan Sisselman of the Army Corps of Engineers said Ohio's mitigation banks are works in progress.
"We're not done. These banks are still subject to improvement. Even if there's a loss, it's not the end of the process," Mr. Sisselman said.
But Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council said his group has "yet to see the first study that validates the rosy promises made about mitigation."
"A replacement wetland is like a wooden leg. It's just barely functional," Mr. Shaner said.
"It is pure folly to think that something man has contrived in just a few years can ever replace what nature took centuries to perfect."
William Mitsch, director of the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park at Ohio State University, would counsel all sides in the debate to take a deep breath.
"I'm right in between the two extremes. I've visited some of those sites ... They still have a lot to learn on the wetlands they created. Having said that, both sides are negligent in not giving the system enough time, in not recognizing nature needs time to sort things out. Both sides want instant solutions, the regulators do and the developers do. They're just pushing the envelope too fast," he said.
"The classic short circuit - and this happens to me all the time - I'll get calls from a consulting company: 'We just created a wetland, can you tell us what plants to put in?' I'm sorry. I wasn't involved in the design of that wetland. I won't talk to them. You get that biology is almost a trivial part."
But those who worry, "If you make it so easy for a developer to destroy a wetland by putting the cash down on the table, they've got a point. It's a valid point," Mr. Mitsch said.
Contact Jenni Laidman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6507.