Protecting the commons — our highest quality wetlands

By Jennifer Ekstrom
Reader Contributor

Coined in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, “the commons” is an interesting concept that deserves more prominence in modern times. The commons is exactly what you might think it means — the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including air, water and habitable earth. Even when owned by the public or privately, these resources are held in common and serve all people by their very existence. 

Wetlands are one example of a critical common resource. They serve to protect and improve water quality, sustain water supplies during drought and are vital for biodiversity. They also help with erosion control, soil and nutrient trapping, and provide humans with a margin of safety in a changing climate. Acting like sponges and reservoirs, wetlands absorb excess water during periods of heavy runoff — keeping communities from flooding and stabilizing the shorelines of lakes and rivers. Wetlands even help recharge groundwater, a critical resource that is often out of sight, out of mind. 

A peat bog at Mosquito Bay. Photo courtesy ICL.

Human development has wreaked havoc on wetlands worldwide. According to the UN Environment Program, nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been degraded since the 1700s, and we are losing wetlands three times faster than forests. 

Idaho’s wetlands are impacted too, especially as more people move to the state. In North Idaho, since most of the waterfront areas that are appropriate to build on have already been snapped up, developers are turning to sites like wetlands that are problematic from both a development and ecological standpoint. It’s an alarming and dangerous trend.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency encouraged states and tribes to develop plans that would guide and prioritize actions for the benefit of wetland conservation and restoration, though Idaho still lacks a formally recognized wetland plan. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game moved forward to adopt a plan for the wetlands they manage, but other agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) need to work collaboratively to develop a comprehensive plan that will be a guide for management, conservation and restoration of wetlands all across our beautiful state.

Fifty-nine wetlands are found in Bonner and Boundary counties in North Idaho. Thirteen of those are designated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game as the best quality Class 1 wetlands, deserving highest conservation priority. They are identified through a rigorous scientific process due to their richness, rarity, condition and viability. 

The Corps has the authority to issue permits to fill in these wetlands for development, and while some of these permit processes require rigorous scientific assessment and public involvement, their “Nationwide Permits,” (otherwise known as general permits) allow for a very quick and easy process with no public involvement or environmental review. These general permits authorize filling in a half acre of wetland or less, but complications abound, and often developers will seek to bend the rules.

A case in point is the Class 1 wetland at the southern end of Priest Lake, known as the Coolin Chase Lake wetland complex. The Corps recently issued a general permit for the developer to fill in approximately one third of an acre of one of 35 subdivided parcels. The fill is slated to be the pad for a 4,080-square-foot shop. Since the rest of the wetland parcels are still undeveloped, it begs the question whether additional general permits will be sought, which would then total well over the half acre maximum.

The Idaho Conservation League is asking the Corps to revoke this first of many potential general permits, and require the developer to apply for an individual permit that would require scientific analysis of the impacts and allow the public to weigh in. We are also asking the Corps to exempt Class 1 wetlands in North Idaho from their general permitting process entirely.

Please join us in asking the Corps to exempt our thirteen Class 1 wetlands in North Idaho from their general permitting process. It’s quick and easy, and could make all the difference. 

These 13 wetlands include Bottle Lake, Kaniksu Marsh, Potholes, Smith Creek, Three Ponds, Coolin-Chase Lake, Armstrong Meadows, Packer Meadows, Mosquito Bay Fen, Perkins Lake, Lambertson Lake, Upper Priest Lake Fen and Upper Priest River.

With your help, our communities can continue to be afforded the resilience and habitat these precious wetlands offer, as well as the timeless beauty they provide. The first step is to get the Corps to exempt Class 1 wetlands in Bonner and Boundary counties from their general permitting processes. Join us in protecting our commons; our amazing wetlands. 

Take action today:

Jennifer Ekstrom is North Idaho Lakes Conservation associate at Idaho Conservation League. For more information, contact her at 208-318-5812 or [email protected].

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