Project turns farmland back into bog
DULUTH -- In the 1950s, frozen food mogul Jeno Paulucci had a lot of ditches dug to drain parts of the vast swamps northwest of Duluth to grow vegetables in the moist soil for his Wilderness Valley Farms venture.
Today, scientists from the University of Minnesota Duluth are turning his creation back into a wooded swamp and peat bog, plugging the ditches at what's now the Fens Research Facility near Zim, about 45 miles from Duluth.
They've graded the 350-acre tract flat as a pancake and are carefully planting it with wild mosses, sedges, Labrador tea and other bog plants, doing much of the work in the winter when the ground is frozen.
These days, it's illegal to drain or pave even an acre of a wetland without adding or restoring at least an acre somewhere else. Developers who are forced to destroy a wetland must purchase "mitigation credits" in restored wetlands somewhere else.
Minnesota has many such wetland banks, representing several of the state's eight types of wetlands -- shallow marshes, deep marshes and shrub swamps, for example.
But the Fens project is the first in the United States to provide a mix of wooded swamp and peat bog, according to the soil scientist who spearheaded the project, Thomas Malterer of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Most of the mitigation credits from the project have already been spoken for.
"In the wetland world, these credits are like very large, rare diamonds," said John Bray, a regional spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which plans to spend about $1.6 million to buy an easement or credits on about 200 acres of the site.
The department wants to use the credits to widen U.S. Highway 53 to four lanes across about 20 miles of boggy land between Virginia and Cook in northeastern Minnesota, and to upgrade the interchange where that highway joins Highway 169 to Ely.
MnDOT says the approximately $70 million project is badly needed for safety and traffic flow, but it will require the destruction of wetlands of the same types as on the Fens site.
Having credits for the same type of wetland is a distinct advantage because regulators will allow an acre-for-acre exchange instead of insisting on a significant gain.
"This is the only situation we know of in the entire country where a transportation department was able to purchase (these types of) wetland credits," Bray said. "They are the highest quality wetlands you can buy."
The other ready customer was another state agency, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which bought an easement on 100 acres of the Fens bog to help county road departments mitigate wetland destruction.
The agencies are paying the university $8,000 per acre of credit, or $2.4 million, which is about twice as much as it will cost the university to restore those acres. The university plans to use the extra revenue for wetlands restoration.
Malterer, who grew up on a farm in an era when wetlands got little respect, said putting the Fens back into nature's hands has felt pretty strange at times. But aside from offending ancestral impulses to clear and drain land, the project is a happy ending for Wilderness Valley Farms, he said.
"It replaces wetlands, the road projects will help economic development, it highlights past research, and it gives us a long-term monitoring site. It has win-win written all over it," he said.