The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has a program that I was unfamiliar with. It is called the Wetlands Mitigation Bank and its use is to help protect important Borough wetlands during times when large development projects are proposed and implemented.
As a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, I was introduced to this program a few years ago when some large mining and gas line projects were being proposed. The purpose of the program was to give the borough some control over the development project if that project were proposing to cross wetlands areas, where the wetlands themselves would be eliminated.
If I understand the process, the development company would need to “buy” the required amount of wetlands acreage which would be affected by the project from the borough, who, in turn, would use the money and other resources to further protect roughly an equivalent amount of wetlands acreage elsewhere in the borough. The intent was to maintain important wetlands in their wild state for future fish and wildlife needs. Once the wetlands are gone, they are gone along with all the flood protection and other valuable effects the wetlands provide.
The MSB started this process back in 2012 to develop a wetland management plan to “develop best practices to maintain wetlands services.” When the Donlin Gold Pipeline project came along, back in 2017-2018, the developers were proposing to use 200 acreages of borough wetlands and about 1400 feet of borough streams for building an access road and pipeline. These acreages and stream distances would be permanently lost.
Through the permitting process, the US Army Corps of Engineers only required five acres of these borough wetlands to receive compensatory mitigation. This is a perfect example of how the USACE cannot be trusted to look out for the good of borough residents and why some level of local control is needed.
In 2019, the MSB Assembly passed a resolution directing the borough Planning Department to continue developing provisions for supplemental wetland mitigation for large-scale projects. This group has a draft plan developed and was preparing to put it out to the public for comment when the assembly recently passed (on Dec. 15) a resolution (20-123) stopping further work on this plan. There was no public push for this resolution. It just appeared.
The MSBFWC has a long history of working with the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to get more salmon north. Recent actions by these two bodies have set the stage for more salmon to possibly be returning to our Northern District of Cook Inlet by passing them through the Central District commercial fishery. Assuming average returns of these fish over time, more space for spawning and rearing of the juvenal fish will be needed. A lot of this will occur in wetland areas.
The MSBFWC was both puzzled and disappointed by this assembly action. We sent a letter, along with many other borough residents, asking Mayor Halter to veto the resolution. I am pleased to say the Mayor agreed with our position. Mayor Halter has been a longstanding supporter of the commission’s work in trying to get more salmon into borough waterways. He understands the need for wetlands to support the continued propagation of our Northern District salmon.
In his veto letter, the Mayor expressed concern over the usurpation of public process by using a resolution to stop potential borough legislation. He then goes on to address the mitigation process itself. He says the process will not stop development projects, but rather, would lend a measure of control by protecting our wetlands, streams and rivers and will protect and promote more jobs than any other steps the Borough can take.
The Mayor mentions how fast the borough population is growing and the fact that numbers of salmon returning to our area have been declining over the past ten years. He also states that development and business opportunities are to be encouraged. The right mix of encouraging development while maintaining vital wetlands is critical to the Borough’s economy for all sectors.
Without a good wetlands management policy, the Mayor says the cost in energy, time, and money to the Borough of managing some of the proposed large development projects pending right now would be far higher than the cost of simply having a wetlands management policy in place.
I applaud the Mayor for his action and hope assembly members who don’t understand the importance of a wetlands policy will learn why it is important.