Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Glorified Puddles

A fine article in the St. Petersburg Times explains how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is allowing tens of thousands of acres of Florida wetlands to be turned into housing developments and malls, in defiance of the law, common sense, and the public interest.

The destruction itself isn't news, of course. The dream-logic of growth for growth's sake - which, like malignant cancer, is eminently natural - elevates destruction to a quasi-religious duty. What's interesting about wetland destruction in Florida is the role played by mitigation banking, that wonderful new free-market solution to all our environmental woes.

In 1999, Wal-Mart proposed a supercenter on 28 acres near the Cypress Lakes development in Oldsmar. Smack in the middle was a five-acre wetland that Wal-Mart said had to go.

The corps ordered something called "mitigation," the linchpin of the no net loss policy. It generally requires offsetting losses by creating new wetlands. But man-made wetlands frequently fail, a fact corps officials are well aware of.

"Mitigation is a fraud," said Anderson, the retired corps permit reviewer.
It turns out that in Florida, "mitigation" often means flooding an acre or two of ground in order to make up for destroying a complex aquatic ecosystem. Of course, this means you end up with two ruined ecosystems. But who's counting?

In Wal-Mart's case, they created "wetlands" around their supercenter's parking lot. To decorate these glorified puddles, they transplanted vegetation and cypress trees from the doomed wetland. In an arrangement typical of mitigation-banking schemes, they also agreed to preserve 26 acres of wetlands elsewhere.

And here's what happened:
Five years later, many of the transplanted trees are dead. Rainstorms send polluted water from the parking lot flowing into the largest man-made wetland, which doubles as a retention pond....And the preserved wetland? Without the corps' knowledge, Wal-Mart tried to sell it for development. Only after a civic group protested did the the corps force Wal-Mart to donate the land to Pinellas County.
There you have it: free-market solutions in action.

Occurrences like these are always presented as astonishing aberrations, and yet they're as persistent and predictable as virtually any natural phenomena on earth. This is what that hopelessly counterintuitive abstraction we call the free market does, and what any rational person must expect it to do in the future (unless it's sunk with all hands, as befits a pirate vessel).

Economic corruption is no less of an empirically verifiable physical fact than gravity, not least in that they both pull all of us down together. And yet, our experts will confess to nothing more than rueful surprise when things go as they always have:
James Connaughton, President George W. Bush's top environmental adviser, acknowledges that "sometimes some of these projects don't work out the way we think they should."
Obviously, the problem is that our legislators are dewy-eyed idealists, innocent as suckling babes of industry's slavering appetite for unethical short-term profit. And who are we to burden these trusting hearts with the truth? To describe our reality as it is would be an act of war against Candyland, that peaceable kingdom whose citizens never hurt a living soul.

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