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Once Dismissed as Swamps, Wetlands Are Vital to Healthy Waters and Wildlife

New Institute report focuses on trends in Benzie County

September 1, 1997 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Despite the proven environmental and economic value of Benzie County's remaining 34,000 acres of wetlands, they are disappearing at the rate of about three acres per year due to commercial construction and housing development, according to a citizen handbook published by the Institute in August.

The 16-page handbook, Benzie County Wetlands: A Resource Worth Protecting, was released at a public meeting in Honor that featured Wil Cwikiel, a nationally-recognized wetland expert with the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

The handbook describes in detail the troubling trend in wetland loss, in Benzie County and throughout the state. Since Michigan was settled in the late 1700s, more than 5.6 million acres of wetlands have disappeared -- half of the state's original inland wetlands and 70% of the coastal wetlands are gone.

According to one conservative estimate, Michigan's rate of wetland loss is as much as 1,000 acres a year. Half of the loss is caused by illegal development, and half is permitted under state and federal laws.

Between 1987 and 1996 the Department of Environmental Quality documented 93 wetland violations in Benzie County. A review of available DEQ files indicates that at least 20 acres were filled illegally during this time. However the official record represents only a fraction of unpermitted wetland loss in Benzie County.

Further deepening the problem is that Benzie County has not been prosecuting violators. Between 1993 and 1996, the DEQ reported nine violations to the county for prosecution, but none of them was taken to trial.

The county's new prosecuting attorney, Anthony Cichelli, came into office in 1997 promising to reverse that trend. "It will be my objective to uphold and enforce the law as it applies to the area of wetlands development and protection," he said.

Benzie County Wetlands: A Resource Worth Protecting makes the case that citizens must play an integral role in protecting Michigan's wetlands.

The following steps are outlined for anyone who has wetlands on their property, lives near them, or simply cares about safeguarding "the lungs of the Great Lakes." Learn more about how to:

• Take care of wetlands.
• Encourage others to support wetland protection.
• Participate in programs such as conservation easements or deed restrictions to protect wetlands.
• Encourage state and local governments to strengthen and enforce wetland laws.
• Report suspected wetland violations to the DEQ.

The Institute's handbook also provides descriptions of:

• The important values and functions of wetlands.
• The diversity of wetland systems in Benzie County.
• The loss of wetlands locally and across the state.
• The laws that protect wetlands.
• Recent judicial rulings that could undermine wetland protection in Michigan.
• Ways citizens can get involved in protecting wetlands.

To receive a free copy of the report,
call Hans Voss at the Institute, 616-882-4723, or e-mail to mlui@traverse.com. Write to him at P.O. Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616, or stop by the office at 845 Michigan Avenue.

"Ecological Values" of Wetlands

Wetlands are America's most productive habitat. They also serve essential ecological functions, which now are recognized as having significant economic value. These include:

• Controlling sediment

• Cleansing water of pollutants

• Acting as a barrier to waves and erosion

• Preventing floods

• Protecting fresh water springs

• Providing locations for careful small-scale cultivation of foods like cranberries and wild rice

• Offering outdoor classrooms for education and secluded locations for recreation

• Providing rich opportunities for historic and scientific research

• Providing habitat for game animals and sport fish, as well as for protected wildlife

Michigan Land Use Institute

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